A blog devoted to exploring wines made from unusual grape varieties and/or grown in unfamiliar regions all over the world. All wines are purchased by me from shops in the Boston metro area or directly from wineries that I have visited. If a reviewed bottle is a free sample, that fact is acknowledged prior to the bottle's review. I do not receive any compensation from any of the wineries, wine shops or companies that I mention on the blog.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Baco Noir - Ontario, Canada

Today marks Fringe Wine's first foray into the Great White North, better known to most as the nation of Canada.  While Canada's wine making history can be traced back to the early 19th century, finding wines from Canada that aren't ice wines can be a difficult task, even here in Massachusetts which is only a few hours from the Canadian border.  Canadian wines are apparently somewhat tough to find even in Canada, as they hold less than a 50% market share of all wines sold within Canada (meaning that over half of all wines in Canada are from somewhere else in the world, which is a rare feat among wine-producing nations).  I was able to find today's wine, made from Baco Noir grapes, in a shop in the Boston area, but before telling you about that wine and the Baco Noir grape, I'd like to talk a little bit about the history of the Canadian wine industry.

Much of the vineyard land in Canada is located in the southern part of the country, typically around large bodies of water that help to moderate drastic temperature shifts and which can also soften the edges of a harsh winter.  Somewhat surprisingly, most Canadian vineyards are located at a latitude similar to that of Languedoc in southern France or Chianti in Italy.  Furthermore, in some of Canada's wine growing regions, the summer temperatures are higher on the average than those in Bordeaux or Burgundy.  While these facts may seem to add up to a warm growing region, the fact of the matter is that because the summers are so much shorter and because the winters are so much harsher, Canada's vineyards cannot support the same warm weather grapes as their latitudinal counterparts across the pond.

The first cultivated vineyard in Canada was a 20 acre plot devoted to local labrusca vines.  From about 1811 through 1916, most of the vineyards in Canada were planted either to various native vine species or to cold-hardy hybrids.  1916 could have sounded a catastrophic death-knell to Canada's young and scattered wine industry as the Canadian government enacted their own form of prohibition, four years before the United States would do the same.  Curiously, grape growers in Canada were able to lobby that wine be excluded from the general prohibition on alcohol, so rather than suffer the profound setbacks that the United States wine industry endured as a result of this legislation, the Canadian wine industry was able to flourish and expand.  Canadian prohibition was repealed in 1927 (six years before the 21st amendment repealing prohibition was passed in the US), and in the eleven year span of its existence, nearly 60 winery licenses were granted just in the province of Ontario.

The ending of prohibition in Canada was damnation in disguise, though, as at around the same time prohibition was repealed, the Canadian government enacted legislation that created large government controlled monopolies within each province which were responsible for the sale and distribution of all alcoholic beverages.  A freeze was also put on granting winery licenses, and no licenses were given for new wineries from 1927 until 1974, when the Inniskillin winery was given its commercial license.  During this 50 year span, though, the wine industry was essentially handcuffed, as expansion and experimentation were very difficult, if not impossible, within the confines of this system.  Most of the wines produced were sweet and foxy and quite a few of them were fortified to boot, while most of the vineyards were still planted to native grape varieties and hybrids.

A series of events around 1988 led to the establishment of what might be called the modern Canadian winemaking industry.  The first was the enactment of a free trade agreement with the United States in 1987 which removed many trade restrictions between these two nations and allowed for greater movement of consumer goods between them.  The second was the creation of the Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA), which established the framework for an appellation system in Canada as well as minimum quality standards for wines that would carry the VQA seal (this exists only in Ontario and British Columbia with subtle differences in each locale).  The final act was the initiation of a vine-pull program that had the Canadian government partially subsidizing and incentivizing growers to pull up their native vine species and hybrids and replace them with higher quality vines.  While this has certainly led to an increase in the plantings of European vinifera vines, there are still a lot of native and hybrid species, especially in some of the more climactically extreme regions of the country (though labrusca species are specifically banned from inclusion in any VQA wines, no such ban exists on hybrids or on wines produced outside the purview of the VQA).

One of the more popular and well regarded of the hybrid vines in Canada is Baco Noir.  Baco Noir was created by a Frenchman named François Baco either in the 1890's or early 1900's.  Baco was one of the great French hybridizers (like Albert Seidel, Johannes Seyve or Pierre Landot) who was active around the turn of the 20th Century.  Baco's crowning achievement was actually a grape called Baco Blanc, which was used primarily as the base for Armagnac until the 1970's.  Folle Blanche had been the primary Armagnac grape until phylloxera came along and decimated the plantings in this area.  Folle Blanche didn't take well to the phylloxera cure of grafting onto American rootstocks, and so Baco Blanc, a crossing of Folle Blanche and a native American grape called Noah, became the preferred variety in the area.  It has since been supplanted by Ugni Blanc, but there are still over 5,000 acres planted to it in the area, though that number is decreasing rapidly.

Baco Noir is also an offspring of Folle Blanche, but its other parent is an unknown Vitis riparia vine.  It was itself once widely planted in some areas of France, but is hardly found there anymore.  It was introduced into the United States in 1951 and in Canada a few years later in 1955.  It is relatively widespread throughout the midwestern, northeastern and mid-Atlantic regions of the US as well as in eastern Canada.  It is fairly cold hardy, though it does have a relatively early bud-break which can be a problem in areas that are prone to late spring frosts.  It does have a problem with vigor and needs to be aggressively pruned on light, fertile soils, but is typically fine on heavier, poorer soils.  It is a fairly low yielder that is susceptible to a few different fungal diseases and is apparently very attractive to birds.

I was able to find a bottle of the 2005 Henry of Pelham Baco Noir from Ontario for about $18 from my friends at Curtis Liquors.  In the glass the wine was a fairly deep brickish garnet color with a brick red rim.  The nose was intense with spicy black plum and black cherry fruit along with some baking spice, bitter chocolate and cocoa powder.  On the palate the wine was full bodied with fairly high acidity and medium tannins.  There were flavors of cocoa, black plum, black cherry, dried cherry, baking spice and black pepper, with a hint of tart cherry popping up on the finish.  This wine was much deeper and richer than some of the other red hybrids I've reviewed (like Chambourcin, St Croix, Vincent, Marechal Foch and Landot Noir), but it did still have that tart red berry fruit at its core.  It is a tasty wine and represents a pretty good value at less than $20 a bottle.  I would definitely recommend grabbing a bottle if you run across it and serving it with a richly marbled grilled steak.


Online wine Australia said...

Thanks for the post, great tips and information.

Anonymous said...

Baco Noir is grown in large quantity in the Finger Lakes AVA.

It is used predominately for Blending.

Hazlitt Red-Cat is a large volume seller.
It is a semi-sweet/sweet blend of Baco and Catawba, suitable for parties, picnics, and sunny weather quaffing.

It is especially popular among Gen-Y young women, the 21-31 crowd.

Red Cat ahs been very successful and Hazlitt recently took over the old Widmer Family Winery facility in Naples NY to ramp up their production capacity 50x or more.
(The facility was owned by Constellation Brands who shut it down in the 2000’s)

Many of the Finger Lakes wineries make their own version of Baco/Catawba blend, like Lucas Vineyards who has: Tugboat Red. (Baco Noir, Catawba, De Chaunac, GR7, Corot Noir)

(You could almost say the Baco/Catawba blend is like as Finger Lakes Heritage blend. See http://hvwga.com/hudson-heritage-wines/ for interesting reading.)

Finger Lakes also has many Baco’s as a varietal:

-Lucas Vineyards makes a nice dry Baco called Dry dock Red.

-Castel Grisch in Watkins Glenn NY makes a nice Dry Baco varietal called “Big Baco”. It comes in a 1.5L bottle, and is slightly fizzy (frizzante) like Italian Lombroso.

I have had a Finger Lakes Baco Blush, it was from the Seneca /Cayuga Lakes region, just don’t remember the winery.

Anonymous said...

One more comment on Baco blends. I visited th Niagara Wine Trail a few weeks ago, and many of the winerys had a Baco Niagara blend. Niagara is a native american labrusca species grape like Cattawba is too. It was actualy quite nice, I tried it at 3 different winerys.