‘A Great Grape’ for Michigan

Wineries turn out rich, velvety Cabernet Franc
Lemon Creek Winery’s Cabernet Franc on display. The winery’s 2017 Cab Franc won a double gold medal at the 2022 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. Photo by Karen Hempel

Michigan is made for Cabernet Franc, and vice versa.

The grape grows well both in the state’s southwestern and northwestern vineyards. Southwest Michigan has a bit of an edge because the fruit has more time on the vine, says Dave Miller, owner and winemaker at White Pine Winery in St. Joseph. But northern Michigan vintners are also producing memorable versions.

“The longer growing season and greater heat accumulation in Southwest Michigan allow Cab Franc to ripen completely, more consistently,” Miller says, adding that “there are northern vineyards with south-facing slopes that produce beautiful Cab Franc, but those are special sites and the exception rather than the rule.”

Either way, the result is a rich, smooth, velvety red that has a following among wine aficionados.

“The wines ripen consistently in northern climates and always produce complex and intense flavors that pair well with a variety of dishes,” says Jeff Lemon, head winemaker and co-owner at Lemon Creek Winery in Berrien Springs.

The Lemon Creek team first planted Cab Franc in 2001, and the inaugural vintage was in 2004. Since then, Lemon Creek has garnered national attention for the red wine. Its 2017 Cabernet Franc even won a double gold medal at the 2020 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.

“The reason the 2017 won … was the density, richness, and complexity was better than any other Cab Franc in North America,” Lemon says. “The complex notes show dense oak, raspberry, currant, and dark chocolate with a lingering finish.”

Lemon Creek’s 2020 vintage wasn’t quite as dense, he says, but held flavors of smoky cranberry, candied raspberry, and currants.

Dean Bender, winemaker and a co-owner at Lawton Ridge Winery in Kalamazoo, has been making wine from Cabernet Franc for about 14 years and growing the grape in Lawton for at least three decades.

“I always liked the Cabernet Francs we had from areas of France that were a little cooler,” he says. “I just felt that a grape grown in Bordeaux and Loire could be used for wine in our cool climate as both a red wine and rosé and for that reason we should be growing it.

“We started planting it using two different rootstocks, and the only regret I have is that we did not go all in and plant a heck of a lot more of it.”

Bender describes it as “a great grape” for the region.

“Cabernet Franc is a medium-bodied wine with good fruit,” he says. “I’ve found that the tannins tend to be softer than that of Cabernet Sauvignon.”

The final flavor profile of each vintage has a lot to do with the weather in a particular season and where the grapes were grown, says Lee Lutes, head winemaker and general manager of winery operations at Black Star Farms on the Leelanau Peninsula. At Black Star, the winemaking team ferments between 1,000 and 2,000 gallons of Cab Franc annually, though some of that gets blended into other wines.

“Usually in a cooler climate like ours, we’re going to get a little more of, for lack of a better word, kind of a savory spiciness to it,” Lutes says. “It can be a little bit herbaceous, too. It’s another one of these red varieties that can be really diverse depending on where it’s grown.”

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the 2023  Michigan Wine Country magazine.

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