Just in Time for the Turkey: Hudson-Chatham’s Baco Noir
By Christopher Matthews
Mention “Baco Noir”, and what comes to mind? A men’s cologne? Dark chocolate from Madagascar? Or an award-winning wine grape in the Hudson Valley (HV)?
The answer is the latter, a French-American hybrid grape that grows well here in the Valley. In fact, back in August, Baco Noir garnered the sole gold medal for the Hudson River region at the 2010 New York Wine and Food Classic, New York State’s annual wine “Emmy” awards. The gold-winning wine: Hudson-Chatham Winery’s 2008 Baco Noir, Casscles Vineyard.
Hudson-Chatham Winery in Ghent is familiar to many RI readers, an anchor of the Hudson-Berkshire Beverage Trail; Baco Noir is probably not.
Phylloxera, a microscopic critter indigenous to North America, largely accounts for why Thomas Jefferson could not successfully make wine in Virginia. He had brought over European (vinifera) vines, which lacked resistance to the pests, which then munched on their rootstock, killing the plant. But without powerful microscopes, no one knew why the plants had died.
To make matters worse, native American grapes such as Concord, while resistant to Phylloxera, still can be carriers. Ignorant of this, in the 1860s, the University of Montpelier (among others) brought over American vines in the name of research, unintentionally unleashing the native American plague throughout Europe and beyond, devastating vineyards, especially in France.
Eventually, the pest was identified, and it came to light that American grape vines (riparia, labrusca, etc) were resistant. The eventual solution: grafting European vines onto American, Phylloxera-tolerant rootstock, which is how it is still done in Europe and here for vinifera vines, such as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
A French teacher and polymath from Gascogne, Francois Baco, bred the grape in 1902 by crossing a traditional Armagnac grape, Folle Blanche, with an unidentified native American grape from the vitis riparia family. It was the Golden Age of French-American hybrids, part of a desperate search to find vines resistant to Phylloxera, the native American root louse that wiped out most of Europe’s vineyards in the late 19th century [see box]. M. Baco clearly admired his creation; although he hybridized thousands of grapes, he only named a few after himself.
Introduced into New York in the 1950s, Baco Noir is a vigorous producer that is fairly winter hardy and resistant to common grape diseases in the eastern US, like black rot and powdery mildew (and Phylloxera!). It also can make quality wine in a range of styles, while retaining its signature deep tint, wild berry fruit, herbal aromatics and pronounced acidity.
I had intended to visit Hudson-Chatham to taste the 2008 Baco, but when I found out they had just released the 2009 Baco Noir this fall, a side-by-side tasting possibility between the two vintages clinched the deal. On a gorgeous, warm November Saturday, I took a scenic drive north from Red Hook to Ghent.
Set on the rolling hills of the former Brisklea dairy farm, Hudson-Chatham owns 15 acres, three of which are planted with French-American hybrids. Owners Carlo and Dominique De Vito believe strongly that these grapes are better choices for the climatic vicissitudes of the HV than the more fragile European vinifera varieties. Several late spring frosts in recent years have reinforced their decision.
But the Baco Noir grapes aren’t grown in Ghent—they come from the Casscles Family Vineyard, which is located on the west side of the Hudson River, close to the Rip Van Winkle Bridge, in Athens, NY.
As it happens, veteran HV grape expert Steve Casscles is Hudson-Chatham’s winemaker (along with Carlo DeVito and Ralph Dooley). As the former long-time winemaker at Benmarl Winery across the river, where Baco Noir is a house specialty, Steve developed an affinity for the hybrid. And 16 years ago, convinced he had a good site, he planted Baco Noir vines on his family property near the Hudson River. Time has shown he was right. Through Steve, Hudson-Chatham gets grapes from a particular parcel every year, enough to make about 60 cases of single vineyard Baco Noir.
The 2008 Baco Noir earned its accolades honestly. A deep-purple ruby, it features complex aromas of briar fruit, menthol, and eucalyptus. On the palate, it’s medium-bodied, with vibrant dark berry fruit on a long, earthy finish. A complete wine, it checks in at a refreshingly low 11.5% alcohol.
As often happens with a small production, gold medal-winner, however, the 2008 is now sold out. Fortunately, the De Vitos have kept some bottles back as “library” wines.
Most of us remember the miserable, wet summer of 2009. In that context, the newly released 2009 Baco Noir is a pleasant surprise. While definitely lighter in color and body than the 2008, reflecting the difficult vintage, it has pretty, floral and plummy aromas reminiscent of Pinot Noir, and bright red fruit with a dash of pepper on the palate. The 2009’s lovely fruit and zesty acidity will make it a versatile—and delightful—local addition to a Thanksgiving table.
Conclusion: two very different, but pleasing wines, showing that Baco Noir can make exceptional wines in disparate (even bad) years in the HV.
At Hudson-Chatham‘s tasting room, the 2009 Baco Noir is available for $18.95. You can also find it at Kinderhook Wine and Spirits, Old Mill Wine and Spirits in Rhinebeck and on the restaurant wine lists of Local 111 in Philmont, and the Blue Plate in Chatham.