Canada’s Signature Grapes

The vintners of this country owe a debt of gratitude to the hybrids that propelled their fledgling industry
Hybrid Variety: Baco Noir
Hybrid Variety: Baco Noir

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 from these trailer park varieties that can 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. The grape was subsequently renamed Maréchal Foch after a French general in the First World War.

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 that 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.

Flashback 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 (1,600 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.”

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

Quails’ Gate is one of several wineries in BC that produce Maréchal Foch, and the most ambitious, making three different wines from this grape — a Limited Release Old Vines Foch, a Family Reserve Old Vines Foch and a fortified port-style wine called F.V.F. (Fortified Vintage Foch) — which account for almost seven per cent of the winery’s production. Other Okanagan producers of Foch include Hubertus, Lang, Sperling, Summerhill, House of Rose, Recline Ridge and Niche Wine Co., as well as Muse Winery on Vancouver Isle, which calls their wine Risqué Rouge. Alderlea Vineyards, also on Vancouver Island, has a proprietary label called “Clarinet” (100-per-cent Foch), which sells out as soon as it hits the shelves.

At Henry of Pelham in the Niagara Peninsula, the former winemaker Ron Giesbrecht established a cult following for the winery’s Baco Noir, which first appeared on the market in 1988. He tells the story of pouring his Baco Noir Reserve at Vinexpo in Bordeaux 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.” Currently, Henry of Pelham’s winemaker Sandrine Bourcier is continuing the tradition of making sterling Baco Noir.

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. It takes a leap of faith to put them through new barrels as a varietal wine.

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.

Tony Aspler is the author of 17 books on wine, including his latest, Canadian Wineries.