Cabernet Franc: the Signature Red Wine of the Hudson Valley Region

In 2014 Robibero Family Vineyards won a competition double gold for their 2012 Cabernet Franc. That was quite an achievement for a Hudson Valley winery, but it was made with Finger Lake fruit. There’s nothing wrong with that; many wineries purchase fruit from other regions, depending on the varieties that they need which may not grow in their own region. And a double gold is a double gold, period. It certainly spoke to the skills of the winemaker, Cristop Brown.

Also in 2014, an important article by Steve Kolpan was published in The Valley Table vol. 65, March-May issue: “A Signature Grape for the Hudson Valley?” In it he pointed out that the Finger Lakes had established the Riesling grape as its signature variety, and Long Island has its Merlot. Both of these are true vinifera varieties, European in origin and widely known and accepted throughout the wine world as fine-wine fruit. The issue for the Hudson Valley, with its harsh and variable climate, was that many of its most successful varieties have been hybrids, which is to say, crosses of a vinifera vine with an American one. The idea was to produce a hardy, cold-resistant variety that also offered a palatable wine. Indeed, Baco Noir is a very successful hybrid that produces very red nice wines, and Seyval Blanc makes some truly nice whites. But neither offers the cachet of a Riesling or Merlot. They’re just not on the radar of serious wine drinkers. It’s a shame, but that’s the reality.

Mr. Kolpan suggested that there was indeed a successful European variety that actually could and did thrive in the Valley, if properly tended to in the vineyard. He suggested that it should be Cabernet Franc.

Historically, Cabernet Franc (aka Cab Franc) has often been seen as a lesser variety than Cabernet Sauvignon, so is often not given the respect it deserves. In fact, DNA analysis has shown that Cabernet Sauvignon is in fact a descendant of Cabernet Franc—in a cross with Sauvignon Blanc—so Cabernet Franc has lost all sense of inferiority. Cabernet Sauvignon enjoys its renown because it is more assertive and bold (it has more acidity and tannin) but Cabernet Franc has some exceptional qualities of its own. It is softer, spicier, and more delicately perfumed. When young it is much more approachable. When blended with Cabernet Sauvignon, the result is often a wine than is more complex than either variety alone.

Like Merlot, it is used to soften the hard edges of Cabernet Sauvignon, and contributes its own complexity and floral bouquet. There is sometimes a spicy or briary flavor to Cabernet Franc wines; Robert Parker detects a “weedy, olive-like aroma,” while Jancis Robinson is reminded of the aroma of pencil shavings. This is sounding less and less like something one would be inclined to drink, but to the world of fine wine, these apparently negative qualities can give the wine an intriguing complexity.

It is an important part of many of the great blended wines of Bordeaux, and is a signature red variety of the Loire Valley. One of the reasons that Cab Franc can do so well in the Hudson region is that it is a much earlier ripener than Cab Sauvignon or even Merlot.

Kolpan’s suggestion was readily heeded by winegrowers in the Valley. It is now planted in several vineyards throughout the Hudson region, including Fjord Vineyards in Milton, Glorie Farm Winery in Marlboro, Milea Estate Vineyard in Staatsburg, Millbrook Vineyards and Winery in Millbrook, Nostrano Vineyards in Milton, Robibero Winery in New Paltz, Tousey Winery in Germantown, and Whitecliff Vineyard and Winery in Gardiner. Together they have formed the Hudson Valley Cabernet Franc Coalition.

Established in 2016, the Coalition set out to define the criteria that had to be met in order to be a member. Choosing a hawk as its symbol (they are ubiquitous in the Valley), the hawk sticker on a bottle guarantees the wine in it is at least 75% Cabernet Franc and that 85% of the fruit was grown in the Hudson Valley. Furthermore, all these wines are to be aged for 12 months in oak barrels before being released for sale.

This is not to say that other Valley wineries don’t also produce Cab Francs: among them are Bashakill, Brimstone Hill, Cereghino-Smith, Hudson-Chatham, Palaia, Stoutridge, and Warwick Valley. They have not yet joined the Coalition for any variety of reasons.

In 2018 Whitecliff was awarded a coveted Double Gold Medal from the prestigious San Francisco International Wine Competition (SFIWC) for its 2016 Cabernet Franc. This makes 2018 a great year for Whitecliff:  it marks the beginning of its twentieth year in business, and it began with yet another international Double Gold—for Whitecliff’s Gamay Noir at the Finger Lakes International Wine Competition. With two international awards for Hudson Valley reds this year, Whitecliff is chipping away at the outdated assumption that New York doesn’t produce great red wines. Furthermore, it confirms the idea that Cabernet Franc is indeed the red variety of the Hudson Valley.

To really enjoy the wine, it should be decanted or at least poured into glasses for about an hour before drinking it, so that the exposure to air will soften the high acidity—typical for so young a wine. Already it offers aromas of dark red fruit, delicate herbal notes, and a hint of oak. It has good body and the flavors confirm what the nose tells you. I late January I had a bottle which I decanted, following my own advice, and consumed about half the bottle with dinner. I didn’t drink the balance until two days later. That longer period of oxygenation had transformed the wine. It had become more balanced as the acidity had become better integrated and the fruit flavors were enhanced. It was, quite simply, an excellent Cab Franc, as good as any that I’ve had from an East Coast producer.

Enjoyable now, I think that it would benefit from being laid down for a few years. Buy a case and open a bottle every few months. You’ll find that it will evolve over time. It really is good, and will get even better. But then, a Double-Gold Cabernet Franc should do exactly that!

This high level of achievement for Whitecliff’s Cabernet Franc, which was made from estate-grown grapes at their home vineyard in Gardiner, will no doubt contribute to recognition of the Valley as a significant producer of this variety.  This time Whitecliff’s winemaker, Brad Martz has bragging rights!

Oh, yes, and Robibero has now planted an acre of its own Cabernet Franc. That’s why they were able to join the Coalition. We await their next wine.

You can read more about Whitecliff here and about Robibero here, as they both have posts on this blog. 

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