Folle Blanche and the Baco Brothers
September 2, 2016 Leave a comment
I taught the “Brandy” chapter of the CSS class yesterday, which is always a fun day; after all, the class includes a drink-along suggestion of Cognac VSOP—which works well even for the morning session.
Brandy is a huge subject—there’s Cognac, Armagnac, Calvados, Applejack, Pisco, Kirschwasser, Slivovitz, Pálinka, Grappa, Poire William…the list goes on and on. As such, in this class I need to focus on one or two representative products and just “drill down.” Yesterday I chose the classic French (grape-based) brandies of Cognac and Armagnac—and discussed the finer points of the regions, the grapes, the production processes, and the aging of the brandies.
As for the grapes, Ugni Blanc (aka Trebbiano Toscano, aka Saint Émilion) is the leading variety used in both Cognac and Armagnac. It seems a good use for this grape, which is both widely grown and a prolific producer despite the fact that it produces wines that are sometimes described as “bland.”
Also common to both brandies, there is a secondary grape lurking in the background in both regions: Folle Blanche.
Folle Blanche is considered by many to be the “original” (pre-phylloxera) grape of the Cognac and Armagnac regions and was documented in the area as early as 1696 via a list of grapes growing in the Charente-Maritime department. It is believed that the name Folle was derived from the French word Feu—meaning “mad” and perhaps referring to the grape’s maddening tendency to grow with unreserved vegetative vigor wherever it was planted. Other synonyms for the grape seem to back up this tale; the grape is sometimes known as Enrageat (from the French enragé—which needs no translation) and is known as Gros Plant (Big Vine) in parts of the Loire Valley.
Besides its stand-in role in the great brandies of France, Folle Blanche (under its synonym) is the star in the dry white wines of the Gros Plant du Pays Nantais AOC. This sur lie-aged wine is produced in the same area as the far more famous Muscadet and tends to produce wines with fruity-mineral character and high levels of acidity. Most Gros Plant du Pays Nantais AOC is consumed locally so it is rare to encounter it outside of France.
According to DNA analysis, Folle Blanche is an offspring (along with sister Chardonnay) of Gouis Blanc; the other parent is an unknown. It also appears to be genetically close to Petit Meslier and Meslier Saint-Francois, which makes it fairly certain that the grape originated in Southwest France, from whence it spread north to Charente and eventually all the way up to the Loire Valley.
While Folle Blanche may never achieve grape variety superstar status, it has a lasting legacy nonetheless as the parent of Baco Blanc, Baco Noir, and Folignan. All of these grapes have a small but fascinating role to play in viticulture, and all are the result of the long arm of science stretching its way to the vine.
Folignan, an Ugni Blanc X Folle Blanche cross, was created by the Institut National de la Recherché Agronomique/INRA (National Institute of Agricultural Research) in Bordeaux in 1965. Forty years later, in 2005, it was approved for use in the Cognac AOC (although its contribution is capped at 10% of the total blend). This move made Folignan the first INRA cross to be approved for use in an AOC.
The Baco Brothers (as I am referring to Baco Blanc and Baco Noir) were both created under the watchful eye of François Baco, a French nurseryman, back in the late 1890s/early 1900s. Baco was attempting to create a grape with resistance to black rot.
Baco Blanc (sometimes known as Baco 22A) is a hybrid of Folle Blanche crossed with the Noah grape variety (itself already a complicated labrusca X riparia hybrid). It was created in 1898 and for a time, was planted in a variety of areas across France—in its heyday there were over 2,000 acres (825 ha) planted in France. These days, there exists just a smattering of Baco Blanc vines in the Armagnac region of France and a tiny bit in New Zealand. However, it enjoys some significant notoriety in Armagnac, where it is approved as one of the ten grape varieties allowed for use in the brandies of the Armagnac AOC. This makes Baco Blanc the only hybrid grape variety allowed for use in a French AOC (PDO) product. Not bad, Baco, not bad.
Baco Noir was created in 1902 as a hybrid of Folle Blanche with Grand Glabre—a highly obscure grape of the Vitis riparia species. Baco Noir was once widely planted in France, however, these days its appearance in Europe seems to be limited to about 2.5 acres (about 1 ha) in Switzerland. However, Baco Noir does not seem to be saddled with the “foxy” aromas found in many hybrid grapes, so it is enjoying some limited success in the colder wine growing regions of the New World. As such, it may be found in New York State (particularly in the Finger Lakes and Hudson River AVAs), and Canada (particularly in Ontario, Nova Scotia, and Quebec).
Sources/for further information:
- Robinson, Jancis, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz: Wine Grapes. New York, 2012: Harper Collins Publishers
- Robinson, Jancis and Julia Harding: The Oxford Companion to Wine, 4rd Edition. Oxford, 2015: The Oxford University Press
The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas… email@example.com