Experts Are Calling Pennsylvania's Cabernet Franc "A Gem in a Glass"

Cabernet Franc pennsylvania wine

Conrad Flynn is the general manager at J.J. Ratigan Brewing Company in Pottstown, Montgomery County, about 40 miles northwest of Philadelphia.

The largest restaurant in the city and one that has helped anchor the downtown resurgence is well-known for its classic American barbeque, and for its steaks and chops. And when customers are looking for a wine that pairs well with his menu, Flynn said that one of favorites to recommend is a Cabernet Franc.

“In terms of everyday drinkability, the thing I love about Cab Franc is, here you have a dry red, it’s not so rich and heavy that at any point it becomes non palatable. It’s not going to take over my food,” he said. 

A French red wine grape, it is planted in all of the major wine-producing regions of the world and has found a home in Pennsylvania and throughout much of the East Coast. Here, like elsewhere, wine drinkers will find it included in Bordeaux-style red blends that are medium- to full-bodied with aromas of black currant, plums, and earthy notes of wet gravel or pencil lead. With more frequency now, producers are rolling it out as a varietal, or single grape. 

At J.J. Ratigan’s, they serve a varietal from Allegro Winery in York County and, currently, a 2019 from Galen Glen Winery in Schuylkill County. 

“I like them both, both for totally different reasons,” Flynn said. “The Galen Glen … is a beautiful ruby color. It looks like a gem in a glass. It is gorgeous. And it has some tart cherry notes. In the finish, you get a little bit of teaberry. So it does have a really distinct European kind of feel to it.”

It’s a dark-skinned grape that you’ll find more often in the eastern half of the state, where it has gained gold medals for a number of producers. Just in the past five years, the Cabernet Franc Reserve from Penns Woods Winery in Delaware County’s won best in class in the Finger Lakes International Wine competition, the Cabernet Franc from Tolino Vineyards in Northampton County won Best in State in Pennsylvania’s Sommelier Judgment Day contest, and the Cabernet Franc from Rushland Ridge Vineyard & Winery in Bucks County won Best Red in the same competition.

Stony Run, an estate winery (where the wine is grown, fermented, and bottled on the estate) located in the Lehigh Valley, had its Cab Franc Reserve recognized as one of the top 10 scoring wines in the 2018 Wine Excellence competition put on annually by the Pa. Wine Society.

“I think Cab Franc is the quintessential red vinifera for our region,” Stony Run’s owner, Larry Shrawder, said. “It has excellent cold tolerance and if properly managed in the vineyard yields a ripe medium-bodied wine reminiscent of Cab Franc from the French Loire Valley. It is very popular in the tasting room as an interesting departure from the old standbys Merlot and Cab Sauvignon. It is lightly peppery and savory characteristics make it a pleasant pairing partner with food as well as a nice sipping wine all by itself.”

Added Molly Kelly, an Enology Extension Educator with Penn State Extension, “Pennsylvania wineries are producing some nice Cab Francs, including rosé

and varietal wines. Of course, it is still used in red blends. … I think that Cab Franc will continue to grow in prominence as a Pa. red varietal wine.”

For one, it’s a grape that consumers recognize, both in the tasting room and in a restaurant. Known for its aromas, from dark fruit and cherry to spice and violets, it’s also enjoyed for its moderately high acidity and relatively low tannin and an earthiness that yields tobacco, forest floor and green pepper.

In the vineyard, according to Joe Renzi at Karamoor Estate Wines in Fort Washington, Montgomery County, “it is probably one of the most well rounded consistent red vinifera varietals to grow in PA, especially the southeastern area of the state where we are located.” Renzi is the viticulturist for one of the state’s premier vineyards. “The Cabernet Franc clones we have at Karamoor in particular have relatively moderate to thicker skins and looser clusters, which helps lower the chances of disease.”

In addition, he said, the fruit ripens on the earlier side compared to Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot, and that can be advantageous in years with shorter growing seasons due weather-related issues. Earlier ripening reds that have the extra time after harvest to store carbohydrates before the first frost, he added, seem to fare better through the winter. 

Finally, he noted that it tends to be less vigorous and a bit more winter hardy compared to Cabernet Sauvignon. “The amount of labor that goes into the cultural practices for Cabernet Franc vines is probably a quarter less compared to Cabernet Sauvignon, so it is a little easier to grow and keep disease-free,” he said.

While there is agreement that the corridor running through the state on the east side of the Susquehanna River is a sweet spot for Cabernet Franc, it also has made a name for itself in the western half of the state. For years, Tod and Jean Manspeaker made excellent Cabernet Franc at their winery in Bedford named Briar Valley; that winery now is owned and operated by Bella Terra Vineyards in Westmoreland County. Bella Terra still makes Briar Valley’s premier dry wines, including the Cab Franc.

Mazza Vineyards, the flagship of the more than a dozen wineries that dot the area in and around North East, Pa., by Lake Erie, has won numerous awards for its Cab Franc, including a double gold in the 2019 Farm Show competition and a spot on the list of top wines in the 2020 Sommelier Judgment Day competition.

One of the other northwest Pa. wineries recognized annually for the quality of its Cabernet Franc is Presque Isle Wine Cellars, where Bob Green has been the executive winemaker since 2015.

“Of the Bordeaux varieties, Cabernet Franc has been the most successful and consistent for us,” he said. “It’s a little more cold-hardy and ripens earlier than Merlot, which is critical since we are often harvesting at the end of October when conditions are less than ideal for ripening.”

He also lauded its versatility, which is needed in years such as 2018 and 2021 when weather conditions didn’t provide the optimum growing season. “It can be made into a rosé that is decent, which gives us more options with vintage variations,” he said.

Flynn, the GM at JJ Ratigan Brewing Company, said the Cabernet Franc sells itself in his restaurant. “The guests, when they’re not familiar with it, they taste it and get it,” he said. “It goes well with food. And having something that keeps its drinkability throughout the meal is a really important thing for restaurants.”

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