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Baco Noir and Maréchal Foch: The True Canadian Grapes? (August 14, 2003)

  • Baco Noir 2002
    600 acres approx.
    710,379 vines approx.
    2,104 tonnes processed
    Up 40% over the past five years
  • Maréchal Foch 2002
    200 acres approx.
    188,139 vines approx.
    763 tonnes processed
    Up 10% over the past five years
    British Columbia:
  • Baco Noir 2002
    78 tonnes processed
    (in 1995: 248 tonnes)
  • Maréchal Foch 2002
    113 tonnes processed
    (in 1995: 134 tonnes)

In the international wine world, red hybrids such as Baco Noir and Maréchal Foch have the appeal of a tag-team wrestling bout.

They are the blue-collar grapes, the early-ripening, winter-hardy, heavy-bearing hybrids that lack the finesse, the breed and the delicate dispositions of Old Europe's noble vinifera varieties. (You know these as Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot et al.)

Yet the contemporary Canadian wine industry owes Baco and Foch more than a debt of gratitude because they replaced the unlamented Concord and other labrusca varieties that made our wines undrinkable. And today producers such as Henry of Pelham, Malivoire, Quails' Gate and Summerhill have produced cult wines of these trailer park varieties that cost as much as their continental cousins.

Their story goes back to 1946, when Brights' winemaker Adhemar de Chaunac brought back from France 40 European vine varieties including a crossing bred in Alsace called Kuhlmann 188-2 (one of whose parents was Goldriesling). The grape was subsequently renamed Maréchal Foch after the French World War I general.

In those years Ontario's Horticultural Research Institute recommended growers plant Foch and other hybrids such as Baco Noir, Chelois, Léon Millot and Seibel 9549 (the latter would be renamed De Chaunac to honour the pioneer of the Ontario industry), the theory being these early ripening hybrids would survive the winter better than the delicate, finicky viniferas.

Today, Foch and Baco (one of whose parents is Folle Blanche – a Cognac grape) are the only red hybrids consistently used to make varietal wines in Ontario and British Columbia.

Flash back to 1974, the year Donald Ziraldo and Karl Kaiser got their manufacturing permit to produce up to 10,000 gallons of wine. "In reality," Kaiser recalls, "we made about 3,500 gallons (1600 cases) of a wine we called Vin Nouveau. It was made to a large extent from De Chaunac, part was Chelois and part Maréchal Foch. We also had been given three 500-litre barrels by the LCBO in which I fermented straight Maréchal Foch, approximately 160 cases."

The following year Inniskillin got its winery licence, but not before the neophyte vintners thought that Labatt's had pulled the rug out from under their fledgling enterprise. The owners of Château-Gai placed a print ad featuring their then winemaker Paul Bosc walking through a vineyard. The copy line announced that the winery was introducing a wine called Maréchal Foch "and better things to come."

"I honestly thought we were wiped out," says Ziraldo. "But Eric Jarvi, the LCBO's wine buyer, put our Maréchal Foch in the Rare Wine Store on Market Street in Toronto and it took off."

In December, 1975, The Globe & Mail put on a blind tasting at which Inniskillin Maréchal Foch 1974 bested a noted Beaujolais, Brouilly Château de la Ferrière 1973. "The six tasters had to do a retasting," laughs Ziraldo, "because they thought it was impossible for a Canadian wine to beat out a named-village wine from Beaujolais."

For all its success with Maréchal Foch, Inniskillin has none planted in its own vineyards. When Ziraldo, a nurseryman turned winery owner, first planted the 30 acres of what is now the Seeger Vineyard, he put in Riesling, Gamay and Chardonnay, defying the accepted wisdom that vinifera could not survive Niagara's climate. Advice from a vineyardist who had recently returned from Russia kept the plants alive: bury them for the winter.

Quails' Gate is one of ten wineries in BC that produces Maréchal Foch, and the most ambitious, making three different wines from this grape – a Limited Release Old Vines Foch ($19.99), a Family Reserve Old Vines Foch ($29.99) and a fortified port-style wine called F.V.F. (Fortified Vintage Foch, $19.99) – which account for almost 7 per cent of the winery's production. Winemaker Ashley Hooper, an Australian who has made wines in a variety of Aussie wineries, including Mildara Blass, Tyrrells and Tahbilk, had never worked with Foch until he took over winemaking duties at Quails' Gate in 2000. He insists on cutting back yields to three tonnes an acre "to try to get past the green hybrid character," and then he ages the wine for 18 months in new American oak.

According to Dave Gamble, who publishes BC Wine Trails, a magazine devoted to the wines of the region, "In the Okanagan there is no longer any real need for either variety with the milder climate regimen of the past ten years. Those who make it do so because there is a specific customer demand for it... In all cases Foch has been treated like a vinifera, especially in the vineyard. They are a pain to grow because of their vigour and erratic shoot growth and it takes some effort to maintain a proper open canopy during the growing season."

BC wineries who do a good job with Foch, apart from Quails' Gate, are St. Hubertus, Lang and Alderlea Vineyards on Vancouver Island, where their proprietary label "Clarinet" (100% Foch) sells out as soon as it hits the shelves.

At Henry of Pelham in the Niagara Peninsula, winemaker Ron Giesbrecht has established a cult following for his Baco Noir. He likes working with it because it "makes a consistent and reliable red of good weight and concentration." Giesbrecht harvests his Baco a week later than the industry norm, but even so it comes into the presses well before Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon. Like Ashley Hooper, he favours new American oak to tame what he calls Baco's "wild fruit-brambly character." He tells the story of pouring his 1995 Baco Noir Reserve at Vinexpo several years ago: a Loire vintner who used to grow this variety before it was outlawed in France recoiled in horror when he saw the label. A rather animated discussion ensued until he finally agreed to taste the wine. "The smile on his face and the appreciation he expressed," says Giesbrecht, "was as much of a surprise to me as it was to him. That experience told me two important things: even entrenched prejudices can be overcome when the wine is good, and secondly, that Baco does not display a pleasing character in all places – so our site is suited to the grape."

When handled well, Baco and Foch can make complex wines, but they still suffer the stigma of their birth, and most winemakers look on these street fighters as inexpensive wines for blending to give depth of colour and add acidity. Last year, Maréchal Foch in Ontario cost $705 a tonne, Baco Noir $750, while Cabernet Franc cost $1,375 a tonne, Cabernet Sauvignon $1,775 and Merlot $1,800. It takes a leap of faith to put them through new barrels as a varietal wine.

And what of their future? Do they have a place in the portfolios of wineries who are trying to cut down the number of labels they're offering? According to Donald Ziraldo, Inniskillin will probably narrow down the number of varieties they produce to Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Icewine – "and maybe Pinot Grigio because I'm Italian and Maréchal Foch because it's the first wine we made."

Foch and Baco will always remain niche products, but given the fact that Ontario growers have increased their plantings, it looks as if they're here to stay. And given the fact that wine regions around the world are re-discovering their historic indigenous varieties – to escape the tyranny of ubiquitous Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot – maybe there is another life for those much-maligned French hybrids.




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