I can’t think of a more divisive grape grown in Ontario. Merely mention Baco Noir on Facebook or Twitter and the haters come out all guns blazing as if you’d just insulted their mother. It’s a deep-rooted hatred, and, in my opinion, just a little over the top.
Let’s face it, if there wasn’t a legion of Baco Noir fans out there it would have simply faded away and gone down as just another hybrid grape replanted to the so-called “noble” varieties. Afterall, it was targeted in the early 1980s with a vine-pullout campaign where wineries were paid to replant it, if they so chose. Some took Ontario wineries jumped at the chance, but many did not.
A lot of wineries have stuck with Baco Noir in Niagara. There’s Reif, Sue-Ann Staff, Peller Estates, 20 Bees, Lakeview and Ridge Road, to name a few.
And, of course, the King of Baco, Henry of Pelham, which thinks so highly of this grape that it makes a regular cuvee and a reserve wine made from grapes grown in the original vineyard (circa 1984) in the Short Hills Bench appellation.
Baco Noir is a hybrid red wine grape variety (above in this photo by Melissa Smits) that is a cross between Folle Blanche and an unknown variety of Vitis riparia, which is indigenous to North America.
It first appeared in the cooler wine regions of North America, including Ontario, in 1955. It was an ideal grape for Ontario because of its ability to survive the harsh winters and its aggressive vigor during the growing season.
Untended, however, Baco can produce yields of up to 10 tonnes an acre, something that is not wise, and most wineries crop down to about four tonnes per acre, or, in the case of Henry of Pelham, 2.5 tonnes per acre for its top Reserve Baco.
Baco Noir is the first cultivar to begin growing in the spring in Ontario. This early bud break leaves it prone to late spring frost injury. It grows vigorously, producing a large canopy that is sprawling. It has a tight cylindrical cluster with small berries and some juice pigmentation.
The vines are capable of carrying a large crop and are fruitful on a wide variety of soil types and locations. It is prone to injury from the leaf-feeding form of phylloxera.
According to Snooth.com, the grape produces rich, highly pigmented red wines with pronounced acidity. Baco Noir based wines are capable of moderate to long term aging and, in many cases, require some time in the cellar, in order to soften the wine’s aggressive acidity. Aromas of the wine are pleasantly rustic and smoky.
Henry of Pelham has been particularly successful making and marketing wines with Baco Noir, despite the fact that under VQA law, the grape is relegated to Tier 2 status – meaning wines made from the grape may only state “product of Ontario” on the label rather than any specific appellation.
I like this description of Baco Noir from Appellation America:
“Abandoned by the French, you seem to have found a home in some chilly vineyards. Tannic muscle is your strength. A lumberjack of vines, you are woodsy and full framed. Your hardworking nature is praiseworthy and your ability to withstand the cold is a godsend for producers in Canada and in northern U.S. states.”
I decided to delve deeper into Baco Noir with a look back at how these wines age. As part of the series #OldNiagara we looked at five older vintage Bacos and compared them to the just-released 2012 vintage of Henry of Pelham’s Reserve Baco.
So, this is part of on-going series from buried treasures in the cellar and includes Parts X, XI, X11, XIII and XIV. You can read all the others parts to this series in previous posts.
Bully Hill Vineyards Baco Noir 1989
(#OldNiagara No. X)
I want to start by saying that all these older wines being reviewed here are not recommended for cellaring this long. This is just an educational series from some old bottles that were well stored by a Niagara collector. The collector was a fan of Niagara wines and liked to age them to see how they developed.
This Bully Hill Baco Noir, from Hammondsport, N.Y., was grown on estate vineyards that date back to the early 1800s and are situated 1,000 feet above Keuka Lake in the Finger Lakes.
The wine had a soft plastic capsule, which I have rarely seen, and a cork that disintegrated on contact with the corkscrew. It made quite a mess.
The wine was inky black, cloudy and began with aromas of black raspberry, pipe licorice, and bay leaves but quickly turned into a foul chemical smell not unlike burning rubber.
I dared to take a sip and it was cringe-worthy with off-putting sour cherry and a host of chemical flavours that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. Obviously, this was not meant to age. I moved on.
Brights Vintage Selection Late Harvest
Baco Noir T. Ghetti Vineyards 1989
(#OldNiagara No. XI)
Brights has a long history in Canada but the quality VQA labels, such as this one, have long gone away. The brand is owned by Constellations Brands (formerly Vincor Canada), which bottles products such as Entre Lac Red, Entre Lac White, Cresta Roja, Maria Christina White and Maria Christina Red under the Sawmill Creek brand. There is also Bright’s House White, Bright’s House Red, House Dry White 74 Port, 74 Sherry, Pale Dry , Classic Cream and Brights President Sparkling, Brights President Sparkling Dry, Brights Pink and Brights Special Moments.
The history of Brights can be found here on the Wines of Canada website.
The cork on this wine exploded like the one above but the results were quite different. “Late Harvest” on the label means picked late and not necessarily a sweeter wine. I was surprised at the detail on the back label, which listed the harvest date (Oct. 13), Brix (22.1), TA (6.5), pH (3.6) and RS (0.5) as well as instructions to cellar 2-5 years. So, as you can see, we have pushed the limits of this wine by 20 years.
It still had a vibrant dark ruby colour with sweet cassis, molasses, dark chocolate and jammy fruit aromas.
The fruit was dried out on the palate and was well past its prime (naturally) but there was some curious pleasure left in the bottle in a mature kind of way with plums, prunes, soft tannins and faded wood spice. A much more palatable wine than the Bully Hill. If you have some, however, you should have consumed it two decades ago.
Lakeview Cellars Baco Noir 1991
(#OldNiagara No. XII)
It was brick red and had a nice nose of mature red fruits, baking spices, nutmeg and a slight black licorice aroma.
While the fruit was fading there was still some cherry-raspberry fruit lurking to go with leather and spice notes. The tannins were resolved and there was still some vibrancy on the palate. Not too bad at all.
Henry of Pelham Baco Noir 1991
(#OldNiagara No. XIII)
This was the surprise of the tasting, in a good way. The wine poured a gorgeous tawny, brick red colour and showed classic Baco aromas of plums, licorice, smoke, leather, coffee bean, cassis and anise fruit. It was well-integrated on the palate with mature fruits melded to woodsy-oak spices, soft tannins and an acid lift through the finish. A nifty old Baco.
Lakeview Cellars Baco Noir 1995
(#OldNiagara No. XIV)
This wasn’t far off its prime. The cork was excellent with a good seal while the colour was just beginning to turn brick red around the edges. The fruit stole the show on the nose with black currants and plums to go with cedar cigar box and nutmeg spice. There was a concentration of earthy fruit, anise and blackberry on the palate with herbs, Espresso bean and still lively tannins and acidity. This still has pleasure to give.
Henry of Pelham Baco Noir Reserve 2012
($25, Vintages, 90 points)
This estate tier Baco from Henry of Pelham shows this varietal at its best. The Speck brothers apply extended maturation and vigorous cap management during fermentation to extract natural and rich fruit. The wine is aged for 15 months in a combination of new and one- to two-year-old American oak.
The nose displays spicy raspberry-cherry fruit, a dollop of blueberry jam, wood spices, leather and a touch of smoky black currants. It shows great concentration on the palate with rich cassis and currant fruit to go with rousing spice notes and ripe tannins. Quite a mouthful here and it may need a year or two to better integrate.