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
- 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
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
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
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
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.