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. Read the rest of this entry »





2014 Henry of Pelham Old Vines Baco Noir

5 10 2016

[This bottle was provided as a sample for review purposes.]

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Welcome Baco.

I admit to approaching this bottle with a slight sense of foreboding.  One benefit of learning about wine is that it helps you pinpoint rare or obscure high-quality grapes or regions that are under-appreciated, and thus underpriced, by the market.  However, one drawback is that it can stratify your thinking about what quality looks like and give rise to unwitting prejudice about varietals or areas that aren’t always known for it.  Baco Noir, like all hybrid grapes, falls within the latter category.  But this bottle is proof that wine prejudice can be overcome.

Almost all of the quality wine grapes in the world, including all of the varieties you can list within 5 seconds of reading this sentence (Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Noir, etc.), belong to a grape species called Vitis vinifera, widely (and accurately) known to be the best of the many families of grapes in the world for wine production.  A hybrid grape is a cross between different species of grapes; in wine-speak that usually means a cross between a vinifera grape and a non-vinifera grape.  These crossings almost always arise out of intentional experiments by people looking to combine the flavour, quality and structure of vinifera with non-aesthetic desirable characteristics of the other species, usually ability to withstand weather or disease, ease of ripening or size of yield.  Spoiler:  they usually don’t accomplish all of these goals. Read the rest of this entry »





Beautiful Bubbles: Benjamin Bridge Trio

3 02 2016

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

If you have a passing familiarity with the Canadian wine scene, you’re probably pretty comfortable about what’s where.  You know that the two big players are the Okanagan and Niagara.  You know where to look for dynamite Riesling, Gewurz, Gamay and Cab Franc.  You may know about the potential rise of Syrah out west, about new possibilities in the Similkameen and a focus on subregional quality in Prince Edward County and the Golden Mile Bench.

But did you know that the best sparkling wine in Canada may well be made in…Nova Scotia?

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A Nova Scotia awakening.

Despite only being in existence for just over a decade, Benjamin Bridge definitely deserves a place at Canada’s bubbly head table, and to my mind they are already the cream of the crop.  Located in the Gaspereau Valley northwest of Halifax, in north-central Nova Scotia (bordering the Bay of Fundy as opposed to the Atlantic), Benjamin Bridge is without question the most acclaimed and well-known winery east of Niagara, producing a wide range of bottlings but focusing heavily on traditional method sparkling wines.  The Gaspereau, with its (unsurprising) cool climate and maritime breezes, delivers a colder, shorter growing season promoting leaner ripening and lower yields, one remarkably similar to bubbly’s Mecca, Champagne in France.  The marginal conditions and harsh winters mandate partial reliance on hardier and earlier-ripening hybrid grapes, which are not usually known for their complexity and delicacy in the bottle, but somehow the winery makes them sing, embracing rather than hiding them and adding a unique sense of intrigue to the wines as a result. Read the rest of this entry »








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