Wine Review: Henry of Pelham Triple Baco Battle

27 05 2020

[These bottles were provided as samples for review purposes.]

By Peter Vetsch

The hardest part about writing a review like this is resisting the urge to pun the headline.  Baby’s Got Baco.  Backstreet’s Baco.  Baco to the Future.  Baco Tuesday.  Where Baco Noir goes, a world of pun glory follows.  But in the end, I decided the title had to focus on the mission.  Three different Baco Noirs from one of the world’s best-known producers of this star-crossed grape, Niagara’s Henry of Pelham, at three tiers of the winery’s portfolio.  One survivor.  Take what you need, give nothing Baco.  OK, I’ll stop.

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Opening a bottle of Baco Noir feels a little like drinking Canadian wine history.  One forgets in our nation’s current golden era of properly ripe bigger vinifera reds and advanced farming techniques allowing warm-climate grapes (even Grenache!!) to flourish in northern climes that it was not that easy in the beginning.  Micro-soil-mapping to ascertain the perfectly right spot to plant the right varietal didn’t exist. Climate change hadn’t yet made the task of Canadian viticulture slightly easier.  It was not always clear what would grow, and when it did, there was always the chance it might just freeze and die the next winter.  The grapes that did the best in the conditions were not necessary the ones that made good wine, but at least they lived long enough to make wine.  You can understand the allure of Baco Noir, a grape that attempted to do both.

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Baco Noir is a hybrid variety, meaning that it is a human-bred cross between two grape parents, one of which hails from the vinifera species of vitis (grape) native to the Old World (from which all of the world’s top wine grapes are found), and the other of which is from a North American vitis riparia species, which makes a poor choice for winemaking but has a constitution much better suited to marginal climates.  Baco’s vinifera mother was Folle Blanche, one of the traditional (white) French grapes of Cognac and Armagnac; its riparia father was previously not known but has now been shown to be Grande Glebre, which carries on a sort of half-life in the wine world currently as a producer of phylloxera-resistant rootstocks onto which many susceptible vinifera vines are grafted.  These parents were crossed and bred by Frenchman Francois Baco in 1902, who obviously decided to name the result after himself.  It was initially called Baco 24-23 (giving you a sense of just how many Baco varietals there likely were out there) before being more convincingly changed to Baco Noir in the 1960s.  After a brief flirtation in Burgundy and the Loire Valley, the hybrid was planted in North America in the mid-20th century, where it gained a foothold in the northeast part of the continent.

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BACO.

Baco’s allure in a nascent Canadian wine industry is not difficult to understand.  Not only was it resistant to phylloxera, but it grew vigorously and ripened early (critical in a short growing season) and yet still retained plenty of acid.  It was cold-resistant through the difficult winters.  It is a teinturier grape, so unlike most red grapes, its flesh and juice were dark-coloured as well as its skins, allowing for guaranteed depth of colour in the finished wine.  Back when the idea of ripening and keeping alive most of the big red grapes of the world was sheer fantasy in Canada, here was this hearty and disease-averse grape that could reliably produce a dark, deep, rich, meaty red without losing its acidic backbone and without dying before the next spring.  Nowadays local alternative options have improved significantly, but the love affair with Baco Noir, particularly in Ontario, has never fully gone away, particularly at Henry of Pelham, where the Bacos are often some of the first wines to sell out every year, despite healthy production levels thanks to 60+ acres of plantings.  Bring on the Baco ladder.

2018 Henry of Pelham Baco Noir (~$22)

Henry of Pelham is one of only two wineries based in Niagara’s Short Hills Bench sub-appellation, the most easterly of the subregions of the Niagara Escarpment.  It is one of the warmest viticultural zones in the region, but also features a massive diurnal shift (averaging a 13-degree Celsius drop from day to night) which slows down ripening and assists with acid retention.  The vines used for Henry of Pelham’s entry-level Baco range in age from oldest to youngest by about 40 years, but are all planted on their own rootstocks (thank you Grande Glebre genes).  Alcohol levels are kept lower (12.5% ABV) and a healthy dose of residual sugar is left in the wine (almost 15 g/L) after fermentation, presumably to enhance and smooth out flavours.

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Baco Noir’s teinturier street cred is firmly and instantly established as this peels out of the bottle a widely electric deep purple colour, like high-voltage beet juice.  Campfire embers, black licorice pipes, pavement and wet earth anchor an otherwise buoyantly confectionary aromatic profile redolent of blueberry pie, grape Gatorade and purple Flintstones vitamins.  A perceptible sweetness hits at the start of the palate and carries through, aiding the fruit and appeal on a quick sip but challenging a more careful assessment.  Blackcurrant and black jelly bean flavours give way to gummy bears and wild berries, with the subtle tannin contracted to the centre of the tongue and a shorter finish turning tangy as it dissipates.  An approachable and affordable entry point to this part of our winemaking history, made in a friendly, fruity way that will draw in casual drinkers.

86- points

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Stelvin & Cork Rating:  6/10 & 7.5/10 (I appreciate the brand consistency between neck capsule and screwcap. And that is one fine portrait of a cork.)

2018 Henry of Pelham Old Vines Baco Noir (~$27)

The next level of Baco expression places a minimum age limit of 20 years on qualifying vines and uses a higher tier of estate fruit in its creation.  It spends 12 months in American oak barrels after fermentation, first in newer barriques and then in much larger foudres.  Drawing from its longtime (and now former) winemaker Ron Geisbrecht’s extensive experience and developed expertise with the grape, Henry of Pelham uses only American oak on its Baco Noir to match the hybrid’s rustic, rambunctious personality.  I am compelled to ask, however:  why is this mid-tier Baco in a Bordeaux bottle when the entry-level and top-tier Bacos from the same producer are in Burgundy bottles?  I know it’s not oversight, as it’s a repeating pattern vintage over vintage.  What is it?

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The Old Vines Baco is predictably still deep and dark, if not quite as luridly purple as its younger-vined brother.  The aromas are so anxious and exuberant that they are noticeable with the glass still two feet away:  oatmeal chocolate chip cookies meets Cherry Nibs, Tim Horton’s iced capp meets lit firecrackers, some swirling mixture of coffee, molasses, mealiness, ignition and candied fruit.  Sweet and sour collide in the mouth, tart cranberry and orange juice slicing through heavy waves of blackberry and grape Jolly Rancher, with a myriad of woodsy notes in between, sauna and cedar bark and rubber boots.  The residual sugar is toned down somewhat (to 12 g/L), and the result is a slightly more serious expression that retains Baco’s baked-in sense of wacky fun.

87 points

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2017 Henry of Pelham Speck Family Reserve Baco Noir (~$31)

If you have frequented this blog before, you may have heard me previously wax poetic about the concept of taking a generally neglected, under-appreciated, or lower-ceiling grape and making the best possible expression of it that you can.  Pinnacle Baco Noir is probably not going to topple pinnacle Pinot Noir, or Cabernet Sauvignon, regardless how carefully it’s grown or how well it’s made.  But it doesn’t have to.  The wine world has room for additional types of expression.  Not every kid is going to make the NHL, but there’s still reward in seeing them achieve their own potential anyway.  That’s why you plant and create a flagship Baco Noir.  The grapes hail from a single block of a single vineyard that Henry of Pelham’s current president, Daniel Speck, helped plant back in 1984, when he was nine; his two older brothers who dug holes for the vines with shovels beside him, Paul and Matthew, are now his co-owners in the winery.  After harvest, this special plot is carefully and gently handled, with no press wine reincorporated back into the finished product.  Despite a ripeness that permits 14% ABV with a shade over 11 g/L of residual sugar, there is still 7.6 g/L of Titratable Acidity in the wine — not quite Storm Haven, but significant for a highly ripe red.

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From a Baco Noir perspective, this is a relatively stately, if glass-coating, semi-opaque purple hue.  This level of mild reservation carries through to the nose, which restrains itself to some extent as it layers celery salt, lemon pepper, matchsticks, black Jujube and charcoal briquettes over an omnipresent, persistent grapey abyss.  A welcome burst of tannic structure supports the greater alcoholic heft, and the black-fruited symphony of flavour adds date and fig to the melange — fitting, because the Speck brothers’ mom was an Amarone fan who insisted that her sons craft a brawny reserve red for that reason.  Brambly, dense and thick, the Family Reserve Baco flashes countervailing notes of dark slate/lava rocks, red peppers and sweat toward a savoury finish, the sweet fruit pulled back for a couple of moments, the complicated imperfect essence of Baco Noir laid bare.  It takes significant care and attention to coax this level of honest expression out of this grape, and it is a joy to taste the experience.

88- points


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