Body: Light to medium, but can be full
Age: Most should be drunk young, but some are at their best after about 5 years and top wines can improve for up to 10 years or more. Many wines benefit from decanting for an hour before serving.
Other: Baco Noir is a hybrid grape variety, a cross between a European Vitis vinifera vine and an unknown American Vitis riparia vine. Note: not all wines are made dry – some basic wines are sweet.
Baco Noir (BA-koh NWAHR) is a grape variety that divides opinion, even amongst wine writers. It is considered either a very good grape that’s seriously underrated, or poor and incapable of making fine wine. It is certainly largely overlooked and has been the victim of prejudice due to its pedigree, as Baco Noir is a hybrid (a grape created by the cross-pollination of two different species of vine).
Its story begins at the end of the nineteenth century when the tiny root-feeding louse called Phylloxera, which originated in North America, devastated the vineyards of Europe between the 1860s and 1890s. The European vine species Vitis vinifera has no defence against this pest, which destroyed up to 90% of vineyards across the continent in a thirty-year period. Desperate to find a solution researchers eventually focused on native American vines as they have successfully evolved natural defences against Phylloxera. Finally, two solutions emerged: graft European vine cuttings onto American vine rootstocks or develop hybrid vines by crossing European with American vines.
Towards the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries great efforts were made to create new hybrid vines and François Baco, a native of southwest France, was particularly successful in this respect. In 1902 he created Baco Noir by crossing the Vitis vinifera vine Folle Blanche (a French white grape variety) with an American Vitis riparia vine of unknown origin. It was commercially released in 1910 and was widely planted in many parts of France, including Burgundy. In the mid-twentieth century hybrid grape varieties fell out of favor in France and were excluded from the appellation system, which only permitted European Vitis vinifera vines. Consequently, almost all Baco Noir vines were uprooted in France and replaced by European varieties.
Around the same time Baco Noir was introduced to the United States, arriving there in 1951, and to Canada a few years later in 1955. Its hardiness and cold tolerance made it very suitable in the cooler regions of eastern United States and Canada, many of which were just beginning to realize their potential to produce quality wine. In the intervening years Baco Noir plantings have declined as hybrid vines fell from favor and by the 1960s they were being replaced by the more acceptable and fashionable Vitis vinifera varieties. Nonetheless, it is still an important hybrid in cooler North American wine regions and has a small, if devoted, fan base.
Baco Noir is a very vigorous and productive vine that needs to be well cropped and managed in the vineyard to reduce yields. Its hardiness and ability to withstand cold conditions make it very suitable in the cooler winegrowing regions of North America, particularly around the Great Lakes. The berries are small with black skin (the wines are very dark in color) and are naturally low in tannin. Acidity is very high, almost on a par with Riesling. The wines take well to oak and generally require it to support their tannic structure. While many undergo carbonic maceration like Beaujolais, they generally need time in the cellar to soften their acidic profile. The body is usually light to medium, but can be full.
Fortunately, Baco Noir wines do not display the undesirable “Foxy” characteristics (a pronounced musky quality) generally associated with other Vitis riparia varieties and most North American vine species. However, the biggest challenge the variety faces are yields, which are often much too high to produce quality wine. The best producers understand this and are prepared to reduce yields in order to increase quality and consequently their wines are the equals of any made from European grape varieties. High yields and poorly made examples can be rustically acidic or excessively sweetened and do the variety no credit.
While most Baco Noir is used in blends there are quite a number of varietal wines made. The best of these varietal wines are exceptionally good, generally Smooth in style, and make an intriguing, and unique, addition to any wine enthusiasts repertoire. Expect aromas of black fruits and ripe plum, with coffee, tobacco, vanilla and earthy as well as smoky notes, followed by flavors of blackberry, blueberry, black cherries and plum, along with dark chocolate and a smooth spicy finish. The top examples display great depth and complexity, and have been compared to Beaujolais Cru (Gamay grape) and Burgundian Pinot Noir.
Baco Noir is often made in the Fruity style, as its low tannin, high acidity and fruit forward flavors would suggest, but with low yields, greater extraction and oak aging they develop a Smooth style profile and can display considerable complexity. Most Baco Noirs should be drunk soon after release, but some improve considerably after about five years. The best wines can improve for up to ten years or more. It is generally a good idea to decant younger wines for an hour before serving.
Although hybrid varieties are out of fashion, and unlikely to make a come back, Baco Noir does represent a different and unique aspect of our collective viticultural heritage. This difference is important, as you won’t find this precise flavor profile in any other grape variety. In the meantime, if you haven’t tasted Baco Noir give it a try. It will certainly be a very informative wine experience.
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