By Evan Dawson, Finger Lakes Correspondent
Few things put a hop in my step like a tasting of cabernet franc from around the world. Before heading out to Wine Sense, an excellent wine shop on Rochester's Park Avenue, I noticed that the tentative tasting list did not include any New York cab franc. The shop's owner, Kristin Vanden Brul, is a strong supporter of New York wines, and I called to ask if I could bring a bottle to taste blind. She happily agreed; it's rather common at Kristin's tastings for enthuastic guests to bring a bagged bottle from their cellar. I did not tell her the bottle was from the Finger Lakes.
"You're sticking your neck out," my wife, Morgan, observed, noting that there was no guarantee that the dozen other guests would enjoy a New York cab franc.
When we arrived we saw that the tasting list had been updated to include a cab franc from Long Island: the Pellegrini Vineyards 2004 Cabernet Franc. Before we began, one of the guests told Kristin that he had never had a Finger Lakes cab franc, and he wondered if she could add one to the list. She replied that the Damiani Wine Cellars 2007 Cabernet Franc was a late addition to the menu as well — an excellent choice. And then there would be my bagged wine. I was deeply curious to see how the NY wines would show.
The ebullient and ubiquitous Holly Howell led the tasting, and she soon found that the group was comprised of cab franc lovers. We began with a pair of slightly disappointing Chinons (both from 2007, and I admit that I don't know what that vintage was like). But a spicy, herbal Amirault Bourgueil raised the game considerably.
Next stop was Long Island. We were excited; most guests had either never had a New York state red wine or had not had one in many years. "I gave up on New York state almost 20 years ago," one man said. His tune was about to change.
The Pellegrini garnered quite a few raised eyebrows. Nicely structured and varietally on point, the only uniform complaint came from the finishing kick of vanilla. "I'm glad the oak didn't swamp it the whole way, but that's a lot of toast to finish," said the very sharp cab franc afficianado to my right. Disappointing finish aside, the wine showed depth and a nice balance of classic cab franc traits. It had me privately wishing we could have flown in a barrel sample of the Shinn Estate Vineyards 2007, which is earning gonzo reviews.
The cab franc tour then barnstormed through the regions that are turning out a wine that I would never associate with cab franc. Fig newtons and Raisinets are fine, but I hardly think of brown fruit when I think of cab franc. And yet the $47 Vignamaggio 2003 from Tuscany was massive and raisiny; the $45 Benegas 2003 from Argentina was rich with fig and vanilla, and the $47 Viader Dare 2004 from Napa was a bomb (though I confess I very much liked the leaner 2003 version of the same wine, a bonus that Kristin brought from her cellar).
By the time we arrived back in New York state, the Cab Franc lovers were ready for something more recognizable. Many were surprised to find it in the Finger Lakes, in the form of a ripe, spicy 2007 Damiani. The tasters loved the "good green" notes that were balanced by juicy dark fruits.
"After the Pellegrini and Damiani, what do you think of New York state now?" I asked the table's Doubting Thomas.
"I'm impressed," he said, smiling. "We've come a long way. I'll need to plan a few visits."
Not even Kristin and Holly knew what wine was in the brown bag being passed around for the final taste. Kristin had asked one of her staff to open it; she didn't want to know. She does an outstanding job of discerning a wine's origin, so I was curious to see what she would say. I only announced that I am afflicted with a deep love of cab franc, so I wanted to bring a bottle that is special to me for this tasting.
As the group studied the wine in the glass — dark but not black — I began to catalog their comments:
"Best nose of the night."
"A lot there. Smells like an herb garden."
"Well, we can rule out California!"
As they sipped and swished, they began to narrow the search. "Gotta be French," said Doubting Thomas. "I don't know about that," said the astute taster to my right. "I think it could be New York based on the wines we've had tonight. A very good New York."
"That would be neat," the man said, "but this is not a New York wine."
The group decision, led by Kristin, was that this was a "Loire from a ripe vintage." They were shocked to see that it was a Ravines Wines Cellars 2005 Meritage. Now, I cheated a bit, as this was not a pure cab franc (nor was the Pellegrini). But the blend was nearly 2/3 Cab Franc that year, with cab sauvignon and merlot finishing it off. And to me, it was a gorgeous showing of what a Finger Lakes blend, led by cab franc, can be.
2005 was a wonderfully balanced year, and the results were exciting. The tasters at Wine Sense agreed that this particular wine still had plenty of years left and was as complex and enjoyable as any they've had from New York state.
In the wake of Taste Camp East, it's fascinating to see where New York wines will take Cab Franc. It does not sell particularly well in the Finger Lakes and there was a glut of fruit last year that had trouble finding a buyer. In many parts of the Finger Lakes it is still over-cropped and thin — perhaps frustrated growers will finally gear back the tons per acre. On Long Island it is not nearly as widely planted as other varieties. But when wine lovers get a taste of the strong vintages of NY Cab Franc (and trust me, I would not have brought 2006 to this group), the old ideas tend to fade away like the Labrusca vines that once dominated our land.