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Perfect 2020 vintage shines a spotlight on Cabernet Franc in Ontario

By Rick VanSickle

The more I taste the 2020 red wines from Niagara the more I am convinced that Cabernet Franc benefited most from those sun-drenched days that defined the vintage.

Also in this Ontario Wine Report: Icewine production in decline, nominations of for Canadian Wine Industry Awards, big savings at LCBO stores, and Niagara wine picks at Vintages.

Niagara wine

Cab Franc is enjoying a moment; one I didn’t see coming for mainstream consumers who tend to shy away from this grape that has been too often misunderstood as the lesser of the three top Bordeaux red varieties and undeserving of top billing on a wine label.

In Niagara, it can clearly be said, that Cabernet Franc trumps both Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot … by a long shot and it took a year such as 2020 to finally drive home that point.

Cabernet Sauvignon is spotty at best. It needs a long, warm vintage to fully mature and extremely low yields (which means high prices) to even come close to expectations of what everyone wants from great Cab Sauvs. I am in no way saying there aren’t some good ones in the warm vintages, there are, but it just can’t be counted on to be consistent. Merlot has other issues, and high on that list is the fact that the grape simply hates Ontario winters and gets killed off every seven years or so. But, oh my, can it be a beautiful thing when it ripens in Niagara.

Cabernet Franc, on the other hand, never fails to have a great growing season. It doesn’t need the hang time, is beloved in both the warmer and cooler vintages and it is at long last getting the attention it so richly deserves.

Allison Slute is a champion for the Cabernet Franc grape.

My good friend Allison Slute (go ahead and check out her @cabfrancchronicles here, the best Instagram account out there if looking for a deep dive into this grape) searches for the most profound Cabernet Francs in the universe. Chinon in the Loire Valley is her Mecca for this grape, but she has a fondness for Cabernet Francs in Niagara, dating back to her years working for Pillitteri in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

“So why is this combination of the Niagara Peninsula and Cabernet Franc a match made in wine heaven? First and foremost, our climate is Cab Franc’s Goldilocks climate. Our summers are warm enough, but not too warm, as the grape doesn’t like it to get too hot. The winters are extreme for many grape varieties, but Cab Franc is a hardy grape variety and doesn’t get too bothered by our -10 C January days. Our northerly latitude, which hovers around 44°N and lies somewhere in between that of Bordeaux and the Loire, affords our vineyards longer sunshine hours during the summer months, which aids photosynthesis and ripening,” she wrote in this piece here for Wines in Niagara in 2021.

“Our soils, which were formed after the last Ice Age when the glaciers receded and are derived from the sediments of the ancient Lake Iroquois, have the ideal combination of clay, silt, sand, and gravel that Cabernet Franc loves. Finally, we need to talk about vintage variation, because we know that every year Mother Nature hands us something a little bit different, but Cab Franc isn’t fazed by this one bit – it shines bright in the cooler years as well as the warmer ones,” Slute concluded.

Vadim Chelekhov is the winemaker at Kacaba Vineyards and Winery.

The reason I believe Cabernet Franc is finally climbing out of its slumber here in Niagara is because of vintages like the warm 2020 growing season. The style is riper, with less pyrazine qualities, less stemmy, herbaceous, and lean notes than in cooler vintages (all attributes that are attractive to Cab Franc aficionados, but less so for the mainstream wine lover), and therefore has greater appeal to a far broader audience.

I tasted one recently that anyone who is flirting with Cabernet Franc will most certainly be convinced that this grape is for them. It’s from Kacaba Vineyards and Winery in Vineland from the 2020 vintage and it is the real deal.

Here are my reviews for that wine and some other new release red wines from Kacaba. Here’s what I liked:

Kacaba Signature Series Cabernet Franc Reserve 2020 ($60, 94 points) — From the best vintage in recent memory for red wines in Ontario, this top-tier Kacaba Cabernet Franc takes full advantage of the perfect growing season. The wine was aged for 19 months in French and American oak and finished at a hefty 14.9% abv. Wow, what a substantial and beautiful CF with a generous nose of black cherries, summer-kissed wild raspberries and bramble, damp forest floor, summer herbs, violets, jammy blackberries, sweet tobacco notes and perfectly integrated spices. It’s ripe, bold, and enthralling on the palate with dense red and dark berries, blueberries, anise, earthy/savoury notes, firm tannic structure, a range of fine oak spice in a complex and layered style with length, power and mouth-watering acidity that promises to only get better in the cellar for 8+ years. If Cabernet Franc is your muse, and even if it isn’t, you will want this in your collection.

Kacaba Signature Series Meritage Reserve 2020 ($60, 93 points) — The blend for this rare bottling made in only the best vintages (the last one was made in 2015) consists of Cabernet Sauvignon (40%), Cabernet Franc (35%), and the rest Merlot. Each variety is harvested, vinified, and aged separately in French and American oak barrels (only second fill barrels were chosen) for 20 months. After tasting all the barrels, winemaker Vadim Chelekhov and proprietor Michael Kacaba select the best barrels for this blend. The wine was finished at 14.8% abv. The nose is juicy and rich with full-on black cherries, anise, Espresso bean, blackberries, subtle earthy notes, toasted vanilla, and elegant oak spice notes. It’s well-structured on the palate with firm, but poised tannins, with a complex, layered array of ripe red berries, anise/licorice, plums, cassis, leather, smoky accents and a long, echoing finish with plenty of finesse to keep this evolving for 8+ years. A cellar treasure that will reward with years of pleasure. Bravo!

Kacaba Proprietor’s Block Syrah 2019 ($33, 92 points) — The Proprietor’s Block of Syrah is the youngest of three blocks at the Kacaba estate. It’s a south-facing vineyard on the slope of a ravine that captures optimum warmth and sunlight of the season. The wine is aged for 17 months in a combination of French and American oak and is finished at 13.8% abv. It shows a range of boysenberries, wild black raspberries, plums, smoky bacon notes, savoury herbs, pepper, and fine oak spice on the nose. It’s a bit riper on the palate than the Silver Bridge version below with an earthy/savoury entry followed by toasted vanilla bean, ripe plums, red berries, plush tannins, spice oak nuances and mouth-watering acidity driving the back end. Drinking nicely now but can cellar 5+ years.

Kacaba Silver Bridge Syrah 2019 ($35, 93 points) —The Silver Bridge Vineyard, planted in 1997, is the oldest of the estate vineyards, and first to be planted to Syrah in Ontario. Similar oak, 17 months in French and American barrels, was used to finish this wine and the abv clocks in at 14%. What a beautiful, personable Syrah with a meatier, more complex nose than the above wine with a nose of savoury red berries, plums, rosemary, leather, pepper, and fine oak spices. It’s highly structured on the palate with savoury/earthy red berries, ripe plums, black currants, cracked red/black peppercorns, cured meats and a long, lifted finish. Can cellar 7+ years with big upside.

Icewine in a downward spiral

A disturbing trend has emerged for icewine production in Ontario in the last five years, according to new data released by VQA Ontario.

A total of 111,614 litres of icewine was registered for harvest in 2022, a gigantic drop from the 502,082 litres produced in 2021 and a steady decrease from just five years ago when production was nearly a million litres.

Now, granted, 2022 is an anomaly due to drastically reduced yields across the board and nearly every grape was destined for  table wines, but the trend is concerning over the five-year stretch.

In 2018, icewine made up about 3% of wine produced in Ontario but has decreased to less than half a per cent of wine produced in 2022.

And not only that, according to a CBC report quoting VQA Ontario’s director of communications and wine standards Katherina Radcliffe, the number of producers of icewine dropped from 41 producers in 2019 to 10 producers for both 2020 and 2021.

Jamie Slingerland, director of viniculture at Pillitteri Estates Winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake, told the CBC that unpredictable climate patterns this winter likely led to a lower harvest, but he expects the quality of this year’s icewine vintage to be of a higher quality. “You’re getting a lot more intensity,”

Slingerland said noting the unexpected cold fronts, snow storms and warm days that have dried out a significant percentage of grapevines while also making harvesting them harder to plan.

Slingerland noted that the grape harvest overall in Niagara is one of the smallest in the last 20 years. But it was still a good year for making icewine, he said.

The president of Ontario Craft Wineries, Richard Linley, told CBC that while there was a change in purchasing patterns during the pandemic, icewine sales at the LCBO have since recovered. “We’re back on track,” he said.

Wines In Niagara will have much more on the 2020 harvest in its annual extensive report published soon.

Nominations open for the Canadian Wine Industry Awards

Wine Growers Canada, the national association representing the Canadian wine industry, is now accepting nominations for the Canadian Wine Industry Awards 2023 in three categories:

• The Award of Distinction recognizes a winery owner or employee who has demonstrated outstanding leadership and commitment to the advancement of the Canadian wine industry.
• The Wine Industry Champion Award recognizes a non-winery industry individual who has provided exemplary support for the Canadian wine industry through media, research, policy and regulation, education, or advocacy.
• The Karl Kaiser Canadian Winemaker Award honours a winemaker in a Canadian grape winery and who has exemplified leadership in winemaking excellence.

Nominations are welcome from industry, consumers, and wine-lovers via this online form by March 30 found here.

Honoured at last year’s awards were:

• Canadian Wine Industry Award of Distinction – Gary Pillitteri
• Canadian Wine Industry Champion Award – Debbie Inglis
• The Karl Kaiser Canadian Winemaker Award – Paul Pender
• Wine Growers British Columbia Industry Recognition Award – Marjorie King
• Wine Growers British Columbia Award of Distinction – Josie Tyabji
• Ontario Wine Industry Champion Award – Rafik Louli

Vintages picks and sales galore

If you are a savvy shopper, you have no doubt noticed the unprecedented deals you can find at Vintages stores these days. And not just the “bonus” Aeroplan points being handed out like candy, but discounts that are 30% or more on some very fine juice — predominantly on the international wine side.

And it’s a bit odd how it’s all being rolled out. While some stores make the wines on sale quite visible with red SALE tags on them, and other stores just reduce the price without even announcing it. You have to hunt around the stores for some of the deals or scour the LCBO website where it’s much clearer and then search for the nearest store with inventory. There seems to be a two-week interval between the sales, with the latest one dropping this past Monday.

I was tipped off by an LCBO source that one of my favourite Barolos, the Renato Ratti Marcenasco 2018 was hitting the shelves last Monday at $52.25. A day before it was $70.95! Now, it was hard to find in the store even when I asked a manager, but the seven bottles were finally located in a locked cabinet with no sale tag on them, just the new price. While in the Niagara store (Niagara Stone Road), I found some Faustino 1 Gran Reserva Rioja on the 20% off “clearance” shelf. Had to grab some as it is already one of the best deals for what you can get from Rioja.

I am not sure what’s going at the LCBO, but the big booze conglomerate does not want inventory hanging around long. My advice for shoppers is to look for red sale tags (there are many), ask the helpful LCBO consultants where the deals are and know how to max out on Aeroplan points (you will notice red dots on many of products in the Vintages section; you collect bonus points if you buy multiples of these wines). And remember, the sales come in three categories — the regular 20% off clearance shelf in most LCBOs with a Vintages section (which includes high-end spirits, like the Appleton 12-year-old Rare Cask I found a couple of weeks ago) with new inventory every Thursday, the more lucrative get-them-out-of-here-fast sale items that are trickier to locate but have prices that are discounted 30% and more, and then the smaller sale items that are on LTO (limited time offers). Happy shopping.

Here are the Niagara wines being released at Vintages stores on Saturday along with our recommendations:

Southbrook Triomphe Cabernet Franc 2019 ($25, 89 points) — A pinch of Merlot is added to the blend of this textbook Niagara Cabernet Franc that sees 8 months of barrel aging and is bottled unfined. It has a lovely savoury nose of cherries, herbs, field raspberries, anise, earth, and well-integrated spice notes. It has some structure on the palate to go with savoury berries, cigar box cedar, spice and a lifted finish.

Queenston Mile Pinot Noir 2017, 92 points) — From the warm 2016 vintage, this Pinot was barrel aged for 16 months in neutral French oak barrels after being left of the skins to cold-soak for four days in stainless steel. The nose shows perfumed red fruits, brambly raspberries, leather, spice and underbrush. It’s highly structured on the palate with ripe tannins, a range of red fruits, spice and savory notes that shows depth and complexity through a long, finessed finish. A classic “velvet fist” Pinot that will show rewards for many years down the road if cellared properly. I also got a sneak peek at the 2017 vintage that is the vintage released Saturday. It’s earthier and meatier on the nose with deep red fruits, beetroot, cassis, and spice. The tannins are silky on the palate with more red fruits, forest floor, savory spices and all propped up by racy acidity through a long finish.

Also released Saturday but not reviewed by Wines In Niagara:

• Inniskillin Montague Vineyard Pinot Noir 2019 ($31)
• Kew Soldier’s Grant 2019 ($20)
• Peninsula Ridge Reserve Syrah 2016 ($40)
• Trius Distinction Baco Noir 2021 ($20)
• Trius Distinction Cabernet Sauvignnon 2020 ($20)
• Jackson-Triggs Grand Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2021 ($23)
• Sue-Ann Staff Robert’s Block Riesling 2019 ($27)
• Trius Distinction Barrel Fermented Chardonnay 2020 ($20)
• Trius Distinction Sauvignon Blanc 2020 ($20)