The Growth of Baco Noir Grapes in Oregon’s Umpqua Valley

clusters of Baco Noir grapes

By: Becky Garrison

The origins of Baco Noir grapes can be traced back to the 1890s when phylloxera decimated Europe’s vineyards by eating away at the roots of the vines. As these native grapes (Vitas vinifera) possessed no inborn resistance to this microscopic louse, they began dying.

  Conversely, grapevines planted in North America proved to be resistant to phylloxera. So, researchers began to experiment with cross-pollinating American grape varieties with European Vitas vinifera to see if they could produce phylloxera-resistant vines that would grow in Europe.

  These experiments bore fruit in 1902 when botanist François Baco (1865-1947) released a hybrid grapevine called Baco 1 (also called Baco Noir) that he produced by crossing a Folle Blanche, a French white grape used for brandies from the districts Armagnac and Cognac, with a Vitis riparia species indigenous to North America. The result was an early budding grape with small- to medium-size bunches producing high yields that were low in tannin and high in acid. This early budding made the grapes susceptible to spring frosts and resistant to powdery and downy mildews. Also, these grapes did not have the foxy characteristics that many other 50 percent of vinifera hybrids express.

  In The Wine Bible, Karen McNeil notes how this grape was cultivated in Burgundy and the Loire Valley until France officially barred all hybrids from being grown in French vineyards. Since this grape was not included in the French register of authorized varieties, its area diminished to just 28 acres, as reported in 2008 by Jancis Robinson. However, this French-American hybrid was transported to North America in the 1950s, when it became popular in cooler climates where traditional vinifera varieties tend not to thrive. Among the more popular regions where one Baco Noir is grown include Upstate New York, Michigan, Oregon, Colorado, Ontario, Canada New York State, Canada, the Midwest and more recently, Oregon, with a particular focus on the state’s Umpqua Valley.

The Birth of Baco Noir in the Umpqua Valley

  According to winemaker Marc Girardet, in 1969, his parents, Philippe and Bonnie Girardet, took off in their VW bus from Northern California, heading northward in search of a place where they could live off the land and raise a family. Upon discovering Oregon’s Umpqua Valley, they purchased 54 acres of old sheep pasture and built a cabin.

  Over a bottle of wine in 1971, this Swissman-turned-Oregonian and his wife decided it would be fun to plant a vineyard. As there wasn’t much vineyard rootstock available in Oregon, they decided to search far and wide. Somehow, they made connections on the East Coast and discovered the Geneva, New York experimental hybrid grapes, along with the French-developed hybrid grapes such as Baco Noir and Marechal Foch.

  Philippe quickly seized onto these hybrid grapes because they could be grown naturally without the need for mildew or mold sprays. After a few road trips back east, they returned with a plethora of hybrid grapes, which would quickly become the largest collection of their kind on the West Coast. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, they grew these grapes in the family vineyard, along with some wild varieties like Landot Noir, DeChaunac and Chancellor.

  Initially, these varieties were mostly blended until 1990 when Philippe noticed Baco Noir grapes had more of a spicy, juicy, yet smooth flavor that stood out above the other hybrid grapes. So, he bottled this grape on its own. Marc recalls helping him sell the first bottles at several wine festivals in the mid-1990s. As he recounts, “The sales pitch was half  ‘Hey, look at this cool wine we made with grapes that aren’t sprayed with any chemicals’ and half ‘try this great wine, and see how amazing it tastes!'”

Baco Noir Grapes Pioneering Natural Wine Movement

  In Marc’s estimation, his father was quite a bit ahead of the curve with the natural wine angle because it didn’t really seem like anyone was aware or cared about natural wine back then. “This wine became a sensation based more on its smooth flavor profile than anything else,” he reflects.

  From the beginning, they chose to farm naturally without any pesticides and using locally sourced horse manure compost. They also chose to practice dry farming, as that practice maintains a small berry size while developing a deep root system. Post-harvest, the grapes are hand-sorted and then de-stemmed into open-topped vats. Next, Girardet hand-punches the grapes to produce a wine that is lightly pressed and racked to barrel for aging.

  The fruits of their labor can be seen in their 2007 Girardet Baco Noir, a vintage recognized by Matt Kramer in The Oregonian as one of Oregon’s best wines (May 31, 2009). He described Girardet Baco Noir ‘Southern Oregon’ 2007 as “a superb red wine: supple, smooth-textured, and with an uncommon refinement that makes it ideal for all sorts of red meats, salami or even just a good liverwurst sandwich.” Following this review, Girdet’s Baco Noirs continue to sell out.

  In Marc’s estimation, “There may be increased interest in Baco Noir (and some other hybrid grapes) because there is more awareness of the dangers of pesticides that traditional vinifera grapes are usually sprayed with. So maybe current knowledge has finally caught up with where Dad was in the 1990s.”

Growth of Baco Noir in Umpqua Valley

  Tyler Bradley, winemaker at Bradley Vineyards in Elkton, credits Philippe for the growing interest in Baco Noir in the Umpqua Valley. Phillip convinced Bradley’s father to plant these grapevines, citing this region’s cold climate as an ideal location to produce these bold reds. So, his father planted one acre, proving Philippe’s prediction was on target. Also, this grape proved very easy to grow once the vines were established, as it requires very little to thrive aside from some basic nutrients.

  Typically, Baco Noir grapes do not express the distinctive foxy aromas and flavors of other Vitis riparia varieties. Instead, they possess rich fruit tones, such as blueberry and plum. That said, Marc opines that even Baco Noir tends to be a little foxy. “This comes from the Vitis riparia in the genetics but is also the reason it is naturally mildew resistant. The foxiness can be appropriately minimized if the vines are grown on sunny, dry site that controls the vigor and if the wine is aged on some good oak for long enough.”

  Baco Noir tends to be constantly a few brix higher than Pinot Noir, a difference Bradley views as crucial to achieving the jamminess his customers prefer. As wine’s acidity remains very high until about 26-27 brix, this wine needs yeast with high alcohol tolerance to ferment to dry.

  Following Girardet and Bradley’s success with Baco Noir, Mike Landt of River’s Edge Winery in Elkton released a 2013 River’s Edge Baco Noir. The grapes for this wine came from the block of River’s Edge Baco Noir, which used to be a horse pasture and contained soil rich in nitrogen. This resulted in more vigorous vines that produced wines with more meaty and savory qualities.

  During this time, Melrose Vineyards (Roseburg, Oregon) began producing Baco Noir and was the first to explore making a fortified wine using the Baco Noir grape. Select winemakers also produce a Baco Noir rosé and use it in creating full-bodied red blends.

  Also, Stephen Williams, owner of Trella Vineyards (Roseburg, Oregon), paired Giradet’s Baco Noir with pizza for many years before he made Trella’s 2022 Pugilist Baco Noir using fruit sourced from two vineyards located in Elkton: Anindor and Elk Valley. He chose the term “pugilist” as it is a dated word for a fighter in a boxing match, which speaks to how Baco Noir is a “punchy” red wine. In addition to pizza, Baco Noir pairs very well with barbecued meats and other hearty fare.

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