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The Man Who Created Baco Noir and Baco Blanc

Baco Noir makes an opaque dark red wine with ripe berry flavours. It is grown mostly nowadays in Ontario, Canada and New York State where its natural hardiness is an advantage. I’ve enjoyed it young but it is said that it reaches its peak in 5—8 years.

The variety is a hybrid, meaning in viticultural terms that it has parentage from more than one species of vine. It was bred in southern France in 1902 by Francois Baco (1865—1947). Baco was a teacher by profession but he became interested in viticulture, learned winemaking, and studied vine reproduction. In 1925 he published “Précis complet de viticulture moderne et de vinification” (A Complete Handbook of Modern Viticulture and Winemaking).

At the latter half of the 19th Century the vineyards of first France then the rest of Europe and then much of the rest of the world were destroyed by an aphid named Phylloxers that had unwittingly been brought from North America.

Phylloxera grubs bore into the roots of vines and destroy those from the Vinifera species which bears wine producing grapes. But native American grape vines have over centuries developed a natural immunity.

The wine drinkers of Europe, however, were appalled by the taste of wines made from the grapes of American vines. The epithet ‘foxy’ was given to the strange wet fur smell and taste produced by many of them.

One promising response was to try to create new grape varieties by cross-breeding immune American vines with Vinifera vines with the aim of getting good tasting wines from a phylloxera resistant vine.

Francois Baco experimented with hybridising vinifera with American and hybrid vines. Of the hundreds of new varieties he created two were successful, one with white grapes and one with black.

Baco Blanc was bred in 1898 using Folle Blanche, a vinifera used for brandy, and the American Noah variety.

Baco Noir bred in 1902 again used Folle Blanche crossed with the American species Vitis Riparia.

It was widely planted in Europe, including Burgundy ,until the European wine law of 1934 banned wine made from hybrids. By this time vinifera was once again growing, by now grafted onto phylloxera immune American roots. Baco Noir was replaced with classic vinifera varieties.

But the situation was different in Armagnac. Baco Blanc had very successfully replaced the Folle Blanche that died of phylloxera and the brandy makers of Armagnac ignored and then fiercely resisted the new regulations. In 2005 their persistence paid off and Baco Blanc is the only hybrid allowed to be used for an Appellation Controlee brandy.

Francois Baco’s pioneering work was recognised by the French government with the award in1946 of the Legion of Honour and in 1952 a monument to him was erected in his home village of Belus in south-west France.

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Peter F May is the author of Marilyn Merlot and the Naked Grape: Odd Wines from Around the World which features more than 100 wine labels and the stories behind them, and PINOTAGE: Behind the Legends of South Africa's Own Wine which tells the story behind the Pinotage wine and grape.

Peter F May paid for his travel, tour and tasting.

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