Cabernet Franc finally pays off for Tinhorn Creek
Photo: Bob Shaunessy (l), Sandra Oldfield, Kenn Oldfield (r)
The top-selling wine in the current Tinhorn Creek Vineyards portfolio is Cabernet Franc – but it took something like 12 or 15 years for the Okanagan’s largest Cabernet Franc producer to score its “overnight” success.
It is quite story. It was related this week by winemaker Sandra Oldfield, one of Tinhorn’s owners, during a 12-vintage vertical tasting of Cabernet Franc. Every vintage that has been released from the first one in 1996. The tasting was presented for the British Columbia Wine Appreciation Society in Vancouver.
Tinhorn Creek began planting its Diamondback Vineyard on Black Sage Road in 1994. If Alberta oilman Bob Shaunessy, the founding partner, had had his way, Cabernet Sauvignon would have been planted. However, Kenn Oldfield, Sandra’s husband and also a partner in the winery, was just completing a viticulture degree at the University of California in Davis. He carried the day for Cabernet Franc. It was another 11 years before Tinhorn Creek planted any Cabernet Sauvignon.
Shaunessy had marketing logic on his side. Cabernet Sauvignon is a far more popular variety world wide than Cabernet Franc. But Kenn Oldfield had vineyard logic on his side. Cabernet Franc ripens earlier that Cabernet Sauvignon and thus is better suited for most south Okanagan sites where the risk of early frost at harvest time is real.
So Tinhorn Creek settled on three red varieties for its portfolio: Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Pinot Noir, all relatively early ripening varieties. The winery made its reputation early with Merlot. In many vintages, Sandra preferred her Cabernet Franc but it was a tough sell.
The huge vintage variations at the end of the last decade did not make it any easier. In 1998, the hottest year in the Okanagan in a century, Sandra was able to make a big, plump red. It was a very good drink at he time but is past its prime now.
Then came 1999, the coldest year in the Okanagan in a century. Sandra, who is as candidly honest as any Okanagan winemaker, describes that year’s Cabernet Franc her “Jesus wine.” It was a mistake even to release it, she thinks now. For the record, the wine is light, with a delicate floral aroma, and it still has a certain appeal, according to my tasting notes.
Not only was 1999 a cold year but Tinhorn Creek screwed up its vineyard management by seriously overcropping the Cabernet Franc. The yield, even after crop thinning, was 5.73 tons an acres. In most years, yields run between three and four tons.
On September 27, 1999, there was a sharp frost in the south Okanagan. “I remember driving out to Black Sage Road,” Sandra recounted. “There were no leaves left. We had sticks out there with massive amounts of grapes hanging.” And the grapes were not ripe enough for wine and, with no leaves on the vines, they were not going to get riper.
“We would have been best to leave it and move on,” she said. “That’s what we would do now.”
Instead, they chose to let the grapes hang for another seven weeks. The natural desiccation improved the sugar levels somewhat and got rid of the unripe flavours and aromas. Sandra still had to add sugar and reduce the acidity in order to make a drinkable wine. And she made 7,000 cases, almost 3,000 cases than in the year before.
“It took us two years to sell 7,000 cases of wine,” she admitted. “It sold pretty well in Ontario.”
That considerable bubble of Cabernet Franc delayed the release dates of all subsequent vintages until about 2006. The winery also started releasing a Cabernet/Merlot blend for several vintages as a way of moving Cabernet Franc. That blend has now been dropped. “I am trying to sell Cabernet Franc as an exciting varietal for B.C.,” Sandra said. “If you want to get people excited about it, put it out naked.”
From 1999 to 2005, “we had monthly meetings about pulling out half of our Cabernet Franc,” Sandra said. However, Tinhorn Creek hung in there, pulling out just a modest block from its 21 acres of Cabernet Franc make room for Cabernet Sauvignon when the winery decided to make a premium Meritage (out this fall).
With its own sales of Cabernet Franc stacking up, the winery made a three-year deal in 2004 to sell about a third its Cabernet Franc grapes to Vincor. Tinhorn Creek came to regret that because, by 2006, consumers had finally begun buying the variety with some enthusiasm.
In 2007, after that contract ended, Tinhorn Creek made almost 6,000 cases of Cabernet Franc and the wine, released last fall, is flying out the door so fast that it could be sold out before the 2008 vintage is ready.
The sold-out 2006 Cabernet Franc proved to be one of the best wines in this vertical. However, the 2002, at its peak now, is delicious; the 2003, another wine from a hot year, is big and satisfying; the 2004 is still dark and brooding; and the 2005 shows lovely spicy fruit. And the 2007, while still developing in bottle, shows attractive flavours of spice and cherries and is so drinkable that some restaurants are using in in their wine-by-the-glass program.
A remarkable fact about Tinhorn Creek’s wines is their affordability. The first Cabernet Franc in 1996 came on the market at $16.95 a bottle. The 2007 sells for only $1 more.
“I am proud of that,” Sandra said. “B.C.’s wine prices have gone bonkers in the last few years.”