February 23rd, 2018/ BY Konrad Ejbich

Does Baco get the respect it deserves? Not really

Baco Noir has been a target of grape shaming ever since the budding of the wine industry. I ought to know. I’ve been one of the chief hurlers of scorn and ridicule since I tasted it for the first time back in 1977. It was weedy, sour and, to my mind, vulgar.

And over the years, Baco failed to win me over. As any trained and qualified wine judge will attest, we don’t have to like a product to assess whether it’s balanced and well made, so I was able to set aside my anti-Baco bias on a professional level. On the personal side, not only did I avoid it, I went so far as to engage in high-spirited Twitter wars with a few of Ontario’s Baco producers and aficionados. Given how much we enjoyed needling each other, my recent requests for product samples were met with cynicism and raised eyebrows.

I had to convince them that I’d decided to revisit the grape and rethink my bias. As a veteran journalist, I thought it was high time to explore the mystery of why anyone in their right mind would grow this particular hybrid variety and turn it into wine.

First, a bit of history. According to Wine Grapes by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz, Baco Noir was hybridized in 1902 by François Baco in the Département de Landes in southwest France. He crossed the vitis vinifera variety Folle Blanche with a vitis riparia cultivar called Grande Glabre and named it Baco 24-23. It was officially dubbed Baco Noir in 1964.

Unlike most red varieties, which have whitish pulp, Baco Noir is a teinturier grape, meaning it has deeply coloured purple pulp. It’s also thin skinned, providing little tannin, and has searing acidity; but Baco Noir delivers a high degree of juicy, dark berry fruitiness.

One attraction for winemakers is its extreme winter hardiness, but is also an early-budding, early-ripening grape susceptible to spring frosts. Exceptionally vigorous, it requires substantial pruning and leaf-plucking. Additionally, the grape bunches need exposure to sun, but that visibility makes them more accessible to hungry birds.

Some growers and winemakers call it the Pinot Noir of hybrids because it can be demanding and finicky. Nevertheless, in recent years, it has become the most-planted red variety in Ontario.

Henry of Pelham Family Estate, situated in the Short Hills Bench appellation, is one of the province’s largest growers of Baco. They have 60 acres, 12 of which were shovel-planted in 1984.

“We really didn’t know what we were doing when we planted our first vines,” says winery president Paul Speck. “We based our decision on advice from other local growers.”

All of the harvest is used for the winery’s estate-bottled production of the highest tiers, including the three Henry of Pelham wines tasted below. Additional tonnage is purchased for use in lower tiers or processed for resale to other wineries.

Speck tells me Baco is one of the winery’s most popular brands, both domestically and internationally. Drinkers of every age, gender, ethnicity and level of wine knowledgeability are attracted to its bold and juicy flavours.

“We have sommeliers all over the world who pour it,” he says, adding, “We sell it in every country that we ship wine to and it’s generally our biggest seller.”

Craig McDonald, winemaker at Wayne Gretzky Estates


Much of the variety’s current success can be attributed to the experimental research and practical work of Ron Giesbrecht, a faculty member at the Canadian Food and Wine Institute at Niagara College and head winemaker at Henry of Pelham from 1990 to 2013. During those years, he developed the modern vineyard management, fermentation and barrel-aging techniques that led to the variety’s transition from crude plonk to cult wine.

20 Bees' Winemaker Scott McGregor

Outside the Niagara Peninsula, Baco Noir has been a staple of vignerons as well. Jamie Quai at Quai du Vin in St. Thomas planted an acre of it for its reliability and strong consumer acceptance. “It’s the first variety to sell out each year,” he notes.

Marc and Anne Alton, owners of Alton Farms, the first winery in Lambton County, planted Baco Noir on the advice of Niagara grape grower Matthias Oppenlaender and have been rewarded with its high survival rate in severe winters. “There’s no need to hill it up like the more delicate vinifera varieties,” Anne Alton concedes.

Winemaker Dennis Sanson, who owns Sanson Estate Winery, planted Baco Noir in 1998 on the advice of Allan Eastman, an industry pioneer who founded Charal Winery, the first estate winery to be licensed in Lake Erie North Shore. Eastman convinced him that Baco was ideal for the heavy Brookston clay soils of Canada’s southernmost appellation. It’s a decision Sanson does not regret. Judges at the All-Canadian Wine Competition have awarded him three gold medals over the years and voted his Baco Noir Reserve “Best Baco in Canada.” Sales have been so strong that he sells out every vintage before the next is released. (We were lucky to taste a pre-release sample.)

Baco’s winter hardiness certainly justified widespread planting in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, but today, it’s the most planted variety in Ontario primarily because of its solid popularity with modern wine consumers.

According to Astrid Brummer, LCBO category manager for Ontario wines, it is the fastest growing varietal among younger drinkers because they’ve never had the bad experience of older connoisseurs and hold no preconceptions about hybrids in general.

“People who are new to wine don’t know they’re not supposed to like it,” she says. “Ontario consumers have a preference for reds that are deeply coloured, rich and round — and Baco can do that. Our customers love it.”

As I tasted through a selection of bottles for this article, I came to the realization that Baco Noir winemaking has changed over the years. Today’s wines are better made, more complex and tastier than their forerunners. So, I’m hereby calling a truce in my war on Baco.

I may not take a detour to seek one out, but from now on when I’m offered a glass, I’ll graciously accept a sip and give it the respect it deserves.



Henry of Pelham Speck Family Reserve Baco Noir 2016 ($24.95)

Inky purple colour with a purple-pink rim. Concentrated and initially unyielding nose that slowly evolves into a rich black fruit and berry bouquet. Concentrated flavours are plummy, curranty and herbal with undertones of walnut skin, tobacco, dark coffee and grilled peppers. Tasty now, but could be cellared for a few years.

Henry of Pelham Baco Noir 2016 ($14.95)

Deep ruby-purple tint, solid to the rim. Nose opens slowly to reveal blueberry, blackberry and plummy notes. Solid texture, good body, creamy fruit flavours and a tart, dry finish. Try with well-spiced meats or game, or ripe strawberries with cracked black pepper.

Henry of Pelham Old Vines Baco Noir 2016 ($19.95)

Dark purple all the way to the rim. Deep, dense nose of blackberry, mulberry and black cherry preserves. Terrific depth and concentration with zesty acidity, thick plummy texture, leathery notes and an elegant, long, oaky-vanilla, dry finish. A keeper. Deserves to be paired with a standing rib roast.

Inniskillin Estate Series Baco Noir 2016 ($15.95)

Dark ruby-purple hue with a pink rim. Jubilant strawberry-cherry-plum nose reminiscent of young Beaujolais. Impressive fruity flavour, hints of dark chocolate, medium body and a lively, dry, lingering finish. Barbecued pork ribs would make a decent match.

Inniskillin Discovery Series Baco Noir 2016 ($19.95)

Dense ruby-purple colour right to the rim. Nose is redolent of milk chocolate embedded with dried berries. Smooth and light-bodied, creamy cocoa tones, plenty of red and black cherry flavours and an oaky-smoky tannic finish. Enjoy with a smoked meat sub or wood-fired pepperoni pizza.

Peller Estates Family Series Baco Noir 2015 ($12.95)

Dark purple tint that follows through to the rim. Light, restrained nose of dark fruit and berries. Lively cherry flavours, light texture and a smooth finish. Goes well with spaghetti and meatballs. Best for drinking early.

Quai Du Vin Baco Noir 2016 ($14)

Very dark colour with a purple rim. Oak-dominant nose with rich blueberry, blackberry and mulberry aromas and a vanilla-chocolate undertone. Quite tart and dry, medium-bodied, with black cherry flavours and earthy herbal notes. Pair with rosemary chicken or ratatouille.

Sanson Estate Baco Noir 2015 ($16.95)

This was the lightest in colour of the bunch; pale garnet with an orange rim. Stewed cherry, cranberry and blackberry aromas with a hint of vanilla oak. Zippy, cherry-citrus flavours with a dry, light-bodied finish. Pasta primavera or pizza with tomato sauce would match nicely.

Sanson Estate Baco Noir Reserve 2014 ($24.95)

Rich ruby colour with a pale ruby rim. Restrained at first, then opens to oaky, spicy, fruity aromas with bright hints of dried cherries. Vanilla and coconut undertones confirm American oak ageing. Lovely oaked fruit flavours with vanilla pastry and nutty nuances. High acidity makes this a terrific accompaniment for top-quality grilled or roasted meat dishes.

Alton Farms Baco Noir 2016 ($20)

Pale ruby with a garnet rim. Bright, candied cherry aroma with a herbal undertone. Light-bodied with good fruit flavours; sweet and tart with a pleasant dry finish. Made for an all-dressed burger with an extra pickle.

20 Bees Baco Noir 2015 ($10.95)

Dark ruby-purple hue. Subdued nose at first opens to notes of dark berries. Fresh, clean, citrusy taste with juicy red cherry flavours, medium body and a hint of charred barrel in the finish. Easy drinking with spicy food, like pastrami or a Reuben sandwich.

Wayne Gretzky Estates Baco Noir 2016 ($15.95)

Dark purple with a rich ruby rim. Medicinal for a moment, but that blows off quickly. Bright nose of dark berries, spicy cherry and black currant with a hint of charred oak. Big, full and flavourful, with solid texture and clean berry notes. Dry and charming. Go whole hog with slow-cooked ribs.



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