It’s just after dawn on a warm and humid early-September morning and Sharon and Shannon Horton are walking through their Cabernet Franc vineyard in Orange, Virginia. Clusters of dark purple grapes hang from vines throughout the 10-acre plot as the mother-daughter team walks up and down the rolling hills, plucking grapes from random clusters to taste the Virtues of Cabernet Franc.

Horton Vineyards, Image by © RL Johnson for Wine & Country Life
Horton Vineyards, Image by © RL Johnson for Wine & Country Life

“We’re tasting to evaluate the flavor and texture, the sweetness, acidity and bitterness of the skin, pulp and seeds,” explains Shannon, general manager at Horton Vineyards in Gordonsville and daughter of the late founder Dennis Horton.  

Her mother, Sharon, who has tended the vineyards for over 30 years, adds, “We’ll take some of these grapes back to the winery for technical analysis, but from what I’m tasting here, they’ll be ready to pick in about 10 days.”

The History of Cabernet Franc in Virginia

Best known for playing a supporting role in Bordeaux blends and the red grape of the Loire Valley, where it’s been cultivated for centuries, Cabernet Franc has found a home in vineyards across Virginia. While the grape is used to add bright aromatics and spice notes to many of the state’s most notable red blends, it’s thriving as a stand-alone varietal wine.

With over 400 acres under vine, it’s the most planted red grape in the state, and for good reason. Although it’s never had the spotlight like Viognier did a few years ago and it’s not as fashionable as Petit Manseng is today, Cabernet Franc has been a consistent performer for local grape growers and winemakers for over three decades.

In 1990, Virginia wine pioneer Dennis Horton, planted his first Cabernet Franc vines in this ground. Two years later, Dennis, along with Winemaker Alan Kinne, produced the first of varietal Cabernet Franc for commercial sale in Virginia.

Dennis, who planted his first vineyard in 1983 and established Horton Vineyards in 1988, with his wife, Sharon, and daughter, Shannon, at his side, was an early champion of Cabernet Franc and of many grape varieties that are prominent in the state today, including Viognier, Tannat, Petit Verdot and Rkatsiteli.

Today, three generations of the Horton family continue in Dennis’s pioneering spirit of viticulture and winemaking. This year, his granddaughter, Caitlin, took on the role of winemaker and may be the youngest winemaker in Virginia right now at just 26 years old. Read more about this family-owned and -operated winery and the history of Horton Vineyards in Gordonsville. For more about Horton’s success and contribution to Virginia wine country, see our article Smithsonian Honors Horton.

Cabernet Franc and Virginia’s Terroir

Cabernet Franc can express its place—the combination of terrain, soils, mesoclimate and farming practices the French call ‘terroir’—as much as any of the roughly 80 grapes cultivated for wine in Virginia. Wines made from Cabernet Franc grown on the sloping clay soils in Central Virginia tend to be lusher, while those grown in the loam and limestone soils west and north tend to be lighter-bodied with brighter acidity. Those grown in the sandy loam soils of the Eastern Shore tend to offer salty and black tea notes.

Joy Ting, who is the research oenologist and exchange coordinator for the Virginia Winemakers Research Exchange (a state-funded research cooperative charged with enhancing wine quality and economic profitability across the state), views the grape as one of the most versatile and site-expressive with which she works.

From the Eastern Shore to the Shenandoah Valley and all points in between, grape growers and winemakers have embraced the ancient grape because of its consistency, transparency and versatility.

“Generally, the [Cab] Franc I’ve worked with that was grown in the Monticello region seems to have more power, while those from the Shenandoah Valley have great freshness. Individual vineyards also sometimes have their own characteristics that show through in Cab Franc wines.”

When not leading experiments and tastings for winemakers across the state, Ting makes wine for her eponymous label, Joy Ting Wine. She sources fruit from high elevation vineyards in the Shenandoah Valley to make a light and fresh Cabernet Franc called “amuse,” which is made using carbonic maceration.

Horton Vineyards, Image by © RL Johnson for Wine & Country Life
Horton Vineyards, Image by © RL Johnson for Wine & Country Life

Keswick Vineyards’ Winemaker Stephen Barnard

Ten miles south of Horton Vineyards, Monticello Wine Trail president and Winemaker Stephen Barnard tends 16,000 Cabernet Franc vines planted in four distinct blocks at Keswick Vineyards. His 2014 Cabernet Franc won the Governor’s Cup in 2016 and was in the 2018 Governor’s Case

Barnard, who came to Virginia from his native South Africa via an internship program at Ohio State in 2002, says it’s one of the most consistent grapes he grows. Diligence in the vineyard is needed, though, to tame the pyrazines—organic compounds that create green vegetal notes that smell like bell pepper or even cooked asparagus.

Keswick Vineyards, Image by © RL Johnson for Wine & Country Life
Keswick Vineyards, Image by © RL Johnson for Wine & Country Life
Keswick Vineyards, Image by © RL Johnson for Wine & Country Life
Keswick Vineyards, Image by © RL Johnson for Wine & Country Life

“I find a lot of Cab Franc wines to be green and under ripe with a herbaceous or stemmy flavor, which I’m not a fan of,” says Barnard. “We work hard to manage that in the vineyard by matching rootstock with the right soils and canopy management, and experimenting with crop loads.”

Barnard plans to make four different Cabernet Franc wines with this vintage that will showcase how well the grape expresses each of his vineyard blocks.

Cabernet Franc in the Shenandoah Valley

An hour west of Charlottesville, the Shenandoah Valley is becoming a popular location for vineyards because of the soils, elevation and cooler temperatures. 

“Here in the Valley, we are protected from many of the more extreme weather patterns that hit other regions, and at this higher elevation, the nights are cooler, which helps [the grapes] retain acidity,” explains Lee Hartman, winemaker at Bluestone Vineyard.

Madison Hotel, Image by © RL Johnson for Wine & Country Life
Madison Hotel, Image by © RL Johnson for Wine & Country Life
Madison Hotel, Image by © RL Johnson for Wine & Country Life
Madison Hotel, Image by © RL Johnson for Wine & Country Life

Framed by the Blue Ridge Mountains on the east and the Alleghenies on the west, the vineyards at Bluestone Vineyard climb to 1,400 in elevation, some of the highest Cabernet Franc vines in the state. Hartman, who farms three acres of Cabernet Franc, believes it’s one of the most versatile grapes grown in Virginia. “I can make a bigger wine that drinks like a Bordeaux or a light and fruity wine that drinks like a Beaujolais. I can also make a fresh Rosé or use it to add bright aromatics to red blends.”

As much as any grape grown in Virginia, wines made from Cabernet Franc have improved in quality in the past decade because of more focus on matching clones and rootstock, and on experimenting with crop loads and canopy management.

From the Eastern Shore to the Shenandoah Valley and all points in between, grape growers and winemakers have embraced the ancient grape because of its consistency, transparency and versatility. Regardless of what grape is en vogue, Cabernet Franc will continue to play a starring role in the next chapter of Virginia’s wine story.

Virginia Cabernet Francs to Try Today

Afton Mountain Vineyards‘ 2017 Cabernet Franc (Monticello)

Winemaker Damien Blanchon impresses with this bottling that strikes the perfect balance between new world flavor and old-world restraint. Aged in concrete amphora and 500 liter barrels, this wine gives off aromas of violet, cherry and spice. Each sip delivers a mouthful of bright red berries, pepper and savory notes with a mineral backbone, and showcases vigorous acidity and a lengthy red berry finish. 

Bluestone Vineyards 2017 Cabernet Franc (Shenandoah Valley)

Made from 100 percent Cabernet Franc and aged in 50 percent new French oak barrels, this Cabernet Franc is fresh, approachable and delicious. Ruby in color, this wine offers aromas of black tea, bright cherry and dried strawberry and hints of pepper with cherry and ripe plum flavors. It shows off a lovely dark cherry finish. 

Chatham Vineyards‘ 2019 Cabernet Franc (Eastern Shore)

Made from Cabernet Franc grown in the sandy loam soils of the Eastern Shore, this wine offers a nose of cranberry, cherry and cedar. It’s expansive in the mouth with flavors of spice, dark cherry and dried herbs with salty notes on the edges leading to a juicy red berry finish. A splash of Petit Verdot blending adds some dark fruit and grippy tannins. 

Early Mountain Vineyards 2020 Shenandoah Valley Cabernet Franc (Shenandoah Valley)

This wine is absolutely loaded with flavor and character. Sourced from two vineyards in the northern part of the Shenandoah Valley, this wine is rich and expressive. It’s a delicious medley of bright cranberry and cherry with hints of pepper. Graphite notes linger, and firm tannins and bright acidity give this some lift. Overall, it has great balance and mouthfeel and a wonderful cherry finish. 

Glen Manor Vineyards 2016 Cabernet Franc (Front Royal)

This 2016 wine is made from 100 percent Cabernet Franc grown on a steep-sloped hillside vineyard at 1,000–1,400 feet in elevation on the western slope of the Blue Ridge. A dense but not heavy expression of Cabernet Franc, this wine shows off notes of violets, black tea and tobacco around a dark cherry and spice core. Fresh berry acidity gives this wine freshness and lift. Blackberries and cedar linger on the lengthy finish. 

Hark Vineyards‘ 2019 Cabernet Franc (Monticello)

One of the newest wineries in the Monticello AVA, Hark Vineyards has earned many accolades because of impressive wines like this one from noted Winemaker Jake Busching. This 2019 wine shows the richer, darker side of the variety with aromas of ripe blackberries, black cherries and hints of cocoa powder, and hints of tobacco linger. Expansive and full on the palate, its flavors of dark berries and spice lead to a lengthy berry and pepper finish. 

Horton Vineyards‘ 2016 Cabernet Franc (Monticello)

This Cabernet Franc offers aromas of ripe plums, elderberry and black licorice accented by savory notes. It’s dense on the palate with flavors of baking spice, dark cherry and plum. Cedar and cracked peppercorns are tasted on the finish. 

Keswick Vineyards‘ 2019 Cabernet Franc (Monticello)

An aromatically charming wine, it’s dark ruby in the glass with aromas of dark fruits, charcoal and black tea jumping from the glass. Brimming with dark cherry, white pepper and spice flavors, hints of oak linger in the background. Dark berry acidity and moderate tannins pull together this wine. 

Stone Tower Winery‘s 2018 Estate Cabernet Franc (Northern Virginia)

Situated on a 300-acre property on Hogback Mountain in Leesburg, Stone Tower Winery offers some of the best views in the region. Made with a splash of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, this Cabernet Franc is a shining star from a challenging vintage. Loaded with dark fruits, spice and lovely black tea notes, it offers a nice balance with a robust finish. 

The Guide to Virginia’s Best Cabernet Franc

Below, we’ve created the authoritative guide to the finest Cabernet Franc coming out of Virginia as awarded by the prestigious annual Governor’s Cup competition. The annual competition is judged by leading wine professionals and managed by Jay Youmans, Master of Wine and owner of Capital Wine School in Washington, D.C. In addition to gold, silver and bronze awards, the 12 top scoring wines earn a coveted spot in the Governor’s Case each year, and an overall Gold Cup Winner is awarded as the highest honor. Read on for a tasting guide of the best Cabernet Franc being made by Virginia wineries today in the Gold and Silver categories.

Award-Winning Cab Franc in Middleburg AVA

868 Estate Vineyards

  • 2018 Gold: 2015 Cabernet Franc Reserve

The Barns At Hamilton Station Vineyards

  • 2020 Silver: 2017 Cabernet Franc

Carriage House Wineworks

  • 2021 Silver: 2019 Cabernet Franc

Chapelle Charlemagne Vineyards 

  • 2019 Silver: 2017 Cabernet Franc

Creek’s Edge Winery 

  • 2019 Gold: 2017 Cabernet Franc

Doukénie Winery

  • 2019 Silver: 2016 Cabernet Franc 
  • 2018 Gold: 2015 Cabernet Franc

Fox Meadow Winery 

  • 2020 Silver: 2017 Cabernet Franc Reserve
  • 2019 Silver: 2016 Reserve Cabernet Franc
  • 2018 Silver: 2015 Cabernet Franc Reserve

Gadino Cellars 

  • 2018 Silver: 2015 Cabernet Franc Antiche Viti Riserva

Granite Heights Winery

  • 2021 Silver: 2016 Cabernet Franc and 2018 Cabernet Franc
  • 2019 Silver: 2015 Cabernet Franc
  • 2020 Silver: 2016 Cabernet Franc

Hiddencroft Vineyards 

  • 2020 Silver: 2014 Cabernet Franc Reserve

Lost Creek Winery

  • 2019 Silver: 2016 Cabernet Franc

Maggie Malick Wine Caves 

  • 2019 Silver: 2016 Cabernet Franc

Naked Mountain Winery and Vineyards

  • 2021 Silver: 2019 Cabernet Franc

Narmada Winery

  • 2021 Silver: 2014 Cabernet Franc Reserve and 2017 Cabernet Franc Reserve
  • 2020 Silver: 2016 Cabernet Franc Reserve and 2016 Cabernet Franc
  • 2019 Silver: 2014 Cabernet Franc Reserve and 2015 Cabernet Franc
  • 2018 Silver: 2014 Cabernet Franc

October One Vineyard 

  • 2021 Gold: 2019 Cabernet Franc
  • 2020 Silver: 2017 Cabernet Franc

Old House Vineyards

  • 2021 Silver: 2019 Cabernet Franc
  • 2020 Silver: 2017 Cabernet Franc

Paradise Springs Winery

  • 2019 Silver: 2017 Cabernet Franc
  • 2018 Gold: 2015 Cabernet Franc

Pearmund Cellars

  • 2018 Silver: 2016 Cabernet Franc

Potomac Point Winery & Vineyard

  • 2021 Silver: 2019 Cabernet Franc
  • 2019 Silver: 2017 Cabernet Franc
  • 2018 Gold: 2016 Cabernet Franc

Quievremont Winery 

  • 2019 Silver: 2016 Cabernet Franc

Sunset Hills Vineyard

  • 2020 Silver: 2017 Reserve Cabernet Franc and 2015 Reserve Cabernet Franc
  • 2019 Silver: 2015 Reserve Cabernet Franc
  • 2018 Silver: 2015 Cabernet Franc

Tarara Winery

  • 2018 Silver: 2015 Cabernet Franc

Two Twisted Posts Winery 

  • 2020 Silver: 2017 Cabernet Franc

Walsh Family Wine

  • 2021 Gold: 2019 Dutchman’s Creek Cabernet Franc

Willowcroft Farm Vineyards

  • 2018 Silver: 2015 Willowcroft Cabernet Franc

The Winery at Bull Run

  • 2021 Silver: 2018 Cabernet Franc
  • 2018 Silver: 2016 Cabernet Franc Reserve

Zephaniah Farm Vineyard

  • 2021 Silver: 2017 Cabernet Franc
  • 2020 Silver: 2016 Cabernet Franc
  • 2018 Silver: 2015 Cabernet Franc and 2014 Cabernet Franc

Award-Winning Cab Franc in Monticello AVA

Afton Mountain Vineyards 

  • 2021 Gold: 2017 Cabernet Franc
  • 2020 Silver: 2017 Cabernet Franc
  • 2019 Silver: 2017 Cabernet Franc

Barboursville Vineyards 

  • 2021 Silver: 2014 Cabernet Franc Reserve
  • 2019 Silver: 2016 Cabernet Franc Reserve
  • 2018 Silver: 2015 Cabernet Franc Reserve and 2014 Cabernet Franc Reserve
  • 2017 Gold: 2014 Cabernet Franc

Cardinal Point Vineyard & Winery 

  • 2021 Silver: 2019 Clay Hill Cabernet Franc
  • 2019 Silver: 2017 Clay Hill Cabernet Franc

Chisholm Vineyards at Adventure Farm

  • 2020 Silver: 2017 Cabernet Franc

DuCard Vineyards 

  • 2021 Silver: 2019 Cabernet Franc Reserve
  • 2019 Silver: 2017 Cabernet Franc

Early Mountain Vineyards 

  • 2021 Gold: 2017 Quaker Run Cabernet Franc
  • 2021 Silver: 2019 Shenandoah Springs Cabernet Franc and 2019 Quaker Run Cabernet Franc 
  • 2019 Silver: 2017 Shenandoah Springs Cabernet Franc and 2017 Shenandoah Valley Cabernet Franc and 2017 Madison County Cabernet Franc

Glass House Winery

  • 2020 Silver: 2017 Cabernet Franc
  • 2019 Silver: 2017 Cabernet Franc
  • 2018 Silver: 2015 Barbera Cabernet Franc

Hark Vineyards

  • 2021 Silver: 2017 Cabernet Franc
  • 2020 Silver: 2018 Cabernet Franc

Horton Vineyards

  • 2018 Silver: 2015 Private Reserve Cabernet Franc

James River Cellars Winery

  • 2018 Silver: 2014 Cabernet Franc

Jefferson Vineyards 

  • 2021 Silver: 2017 Cabernet Franc
  • 2020 Silver: 2017 Jefferson Vineyards Cabernet Franc
  • 2018 Silver: 2016 Cabernet Franc

Keswick Vineyards 

  • 2021 Silver: 2019 Estate Reserve Block 7 Cabernet Franc and 2019 Estate Reserve Block 2 Cabernet Franc
  • 2020 Silver: 2017 Cabernet Franc Block 7 and 2017 Signature Series Cabernet Franc
  • 2019 Gold: 2016 Signature Series Cabernet Franc
  • 2019 Silver: 2017 Cabernet Franc
  • 2018 Gold: 2016 Cabernet Franc Estate Reserve (Governor’s Case)
  • 2016 Gold: 2014 Cabernet Franc (Governor’s Cup Winner)

King Family Vineyards

  • 2021 Silver: 2019 Cabernet Franc
  • 2019 Silver: 2017 Cabernet Franc

Michael Shaps Wineworks

  • 2020 Gold: 2017 Michael Shaps Cabernet Franc
  • 2020 Silver: Michael Shaps Blanc De Franc
  • 2019 Gold: 2017 Shenandoah Vineyards Cabernet Franc and 2017 Pippin Hill Farm & Vineyards Cabernet Franc
  • 2019 Silver: Michael Shaps Blanc de Franc and 2014 General’s Ridge Vineyard Cabernet Franc and 2017 Brix & Columns Vineyards Cabernet Franc
  • 2018 Gold: 2015 Michael Shaps Cabernet Franc
  • 2018 Silver: Michael Shaps Blanc de Franc
  • 2017 Gold: 2014 Cabernet Franc

Mount Ida Reserve Tasting Room & Taphouse

  • 2020 Silver: 2017 High Ridge Reserve Cabernet Franc

Pippin Hill Farm & Vineyards

  • 2021 Silver: 2019 Cabernet Franc

Pollak Vineyards 

  • 2020 Gold: 2017 Cabernet Franc and 2017 Cabernet Franc Reserve (Governor’s Case)
  • 2019 Silver: 2015 Cabernet Franc Reserve
  • 2018 Gold: 2015 Cabernet Franc Reserve
  • 2018 Silver: 2014 Cabernet Franc Reserve
  • 2017 Gold: 2013 Cabernet Franc Reserve

Reynard Florence Vineyard 

  • 2021 Silver: 2017 Cabernet Franc
  • 2020 Silver: 2017 Cabernet Franc

Stinson Vineyards 

  • 2019 Silver: 2017 Cabernet Franc
  • 2018 Silver: 2015 Cabernet Franc

Veritas Vineyards & Winery 

  • 2020 Silver: 2017 Cabernet Franc and 2017 Cabernet Franc Reserve
  • 2019 Gold: 2017 Cabernet Franc

Award-Winning Cab Franc in Rocky Knob AVA

Beliveau Farm Winery 

  • 2021 Silver: 2017 Cabernet Franc Reserve

Stanburn Winery 

  • 2018 Silver: 2015 Cabernet Franc Reserve

Whitebarrel Winery 

  • 2020 Silver: 2017 Cabernet Franc
  • 2018 Silver: 2011 Cabernet Franc

Award-Winning Cab Franc in Shenandoah Valley AVA

Barren Ridge Vineyards

  • 2021 Silver: 2017 Cabernet Franc

Bluestone Vineyard 

  • 2021 Silver: 2017 Cabernet Franc
  • 2020 Silver: 2017 Cabernet Franc

Cave Ridge Vineyard

  • 2021 Silver: 2015 Red Silk Barrel Select Cabernet Franc
  • 2020 Silver: 2017 Cabernet Franc
  • 2018 Silver: 2014 Red Silk Barrel Select Cabernet Franc

CrossKeys Vineyards 

  • 2021 Silver: 2019 Block 2 Cabernet Franc
  • 2019 Silver: 2016 Cabernet Franc
  • 2018 Silver: 2016 Cabernet Franc
  • 2017 Gold: 2015 Cabernet Franc

Glen Manor Vineyards

  • 2019 Gold: 2015 Cabernet Franc (Governor’s Case)

Muse Vineyards

  • 2021 Silver: 2017 Cabernet Franc
  • 2020 Gold: 2015 Cabernet Franc

Rockbridge Vineyard & Brewery

  • 2020 Silver: 2015 Cabernet Franc
  • 2018 Silver: 2014 Cabernet Franc

Shenandoah Vineyards 

  • 2020 Silver: 2017 Shenandoah Cabernet Franc

Award-Winning Cab Franc in Southern Virginia AVA

Rosemont Vineyards & Winery

  • 2018 Silver: 2015 Cabernet Franc

Award-Winning Cab Franc in Virginia Peninsula AVA

New Kent Winery

  • 2021 Silver: 2017 Cabernet Franc
  • 2019 Silver: 2016 Cabernet Franc

 

FRANK MORGAN is a professional wine writer and author of the DrinkWhatYouLike.com wine blog, which he started in 2009 to chronicle his travel experiences and to share stories of the wines, wineries and winegrowers of Virginia. He has taken many WSET courses and region-specific master classes through the Society of Wine Educators. Morgan is also the founder of Virginia Wine Chat, a monthly virtual wine tasting series, serves as a judge for the Virginia Governor’s Cup competition and helps to organize both the Monticello Wine Trail and Shenandoah Valley Wine Trail wine competitions each year.

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Wine & Country celebrates elevated living in Virginia Wine Country. Wine & Country Life, a semi-annual life & style magazine, and Wine & Country Weddings, an annual art book celebrating elegant Virginia weddings, are complemented by the Wine & Country Shop in Ivy, VA—a beautiful lifestyle boutique that brings the pages of the magazines to life. The Shop features over 40 Virginia artisans with everything from tailgating essentials and Dubarry attire to locally made foods and award-winning Virginia wines and craft beverages for your next event. Wine & Country covers the grape-growing foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains from Lynchburg to Leesburg, including points in between like Charlottesville and Middleburg. Ivy Life & Style Media also creates other projects, including CharlottesvilleFamily.com, a collection of local resources including a popular calendar of events, family services guides and features on education, health and family day trips for parents and teachers in Charlottesville, as well as the CharlottesvilleWelcomeBook.com a guide to resources for Charlottesville tourists and newcomers.