Many, many years ago—well before we were sipping wines made from stylish Vitis vinifera proliferating along the Naramata Bench—we were tossing back beakers full of dubious wines made from often-brutish grapes known as French hybrids.
Whereas the former were meant to produce wines of elegance and excellence, the latter were meant to survive the winter. That was job one; taste came a distant second. Mercifully, most of these have disappeared from our vineyards, although a few nostalgically stubborn grape growers and winemakers send them out at various vintages because there remains a taste for them. Call it nostalgia, call it irrational fondness for rustic—some would say raunchy—reds that do have a way with certain foods, primarily those that have fire directly applied to them on barbecues or in other outdoor ovens.
Unless you are one of the aforementioned growers or producers, you’re fully forgiven for not remembering the likes of Léon Millot and Chelois, Chancellor and De Chaunac, Baco Noir and Maréchal Foch. (Although on VIA Rail’s Canadian between here and Toronto, they’ll serve you an Ontario Baco Noir if you ask. It’s a very Canadian experience.) Here in B.C., a few producers are still making Maréchal Foch. Hardly anyone uses the maréchal part, not even on the label; it’s simply Foch—rhymes with Roche, as in Bobois.
Of the once-proliferate hybrids, Foch remains the most planted, although the numbers overall are minuscule. In the very useful 2007 edition of his Okanagan Wine Tour Guide, John Schreiner presents a table of total percentages in B.C. red-grape plantings. Among them are these hybrids: Baco Noir, 0.05 percent; Chancellor, 0.15 percent; Léon Millot, 0.07 percent; St. Laurent, 0.01 percent; all other miscellaneous, 0.33 percent. Topping the list is Foch, with 1.4 percent.
Guenther Lang, of the winery and vineyard in Naramata that still bear his name, used to make one of the best: a mellow, stylish, very approachable Foch that didn’t cauterize the tongue or dissolve any tooth enamel. Today, Quails’ Gate still has a good Foch program, amounting to just over 39,000 bottles spread over three labels: Old Vines Foch 2007, Old Vines Foch Reserve 2007, and Fortified Vintage Foch 2007.
The prices will surprise you: the Regular is $24.99, while the Reserve is $39.99, both in 750-millilitre bottles, while the Fortified is $22.99 in a 375-millilitre bottle.
While Foch often presents a dark and dusty, stemmy and leafy quality, the Regular at least exhibits some solid fruit, an appealing dryness, some spices and sweetness; anything good and gamy (like a venerable goat cheese or some grilled venison) would handle it well. The Reserve will set you on your heels to the tune of $40 (at the winery or in the store; probably double that at least in a restaurant), and is quite fun—deep, inky, robust—made from 40-year-old vines. It’s intense and earthy, with smoky aftertones and bitter chocolate and espresso aspects, but it is 40-dollar fun. For rosemary-roasted lamb, bison tenderloin, or—this from the winery, and it’s inspired—golden beet and blue cheese purée.
The Fortified Foch has been a personal favourite for decades. It’s all soft and pillowy, no edge, just a full-palate meltdown, chocolatey and lovely. If you like port you’ll warm to this, alongside robust cheeses or a chocolate dessert.
Availability varies: private stores, better-than-average restaurant cellars, and the winery are best bets.
Two others made themselves known this winter, one from a well-established “destination” winery in the Okanagan, the other from a tiny, brand-new winery with a long B.C. history.
Summerhill Pyramid Winery Organic Foch Platinum Series 2006 ($34.95) carries a slightly shocking 15.6-percent alcohol suspended in its tar-black liquid, belying its fresh, clean nose. Raisins strike the palate first, then hard-roasted coffee. The finish is bitter and very short. An interesting comparison wine, but ultimately past its prime—the fruit has imploded.
The newcomer is Sperling Vineyards Old Vines Foch 2008 ($26), made by Ann Sperling, who’s been doing this for 25 years here (in the Okanagan on the family estate property, which dates back 150 years), there (in Niagara), and everywhere (mostly in Argentina, where she has a current winery project). Close followers of the B.C. wine scene will remember Ann as the winemaker for CedarCreek who created the 1992 Merlot Reserve, which won the first and only Platinum medal in the Okanagan wine festival shortly after its release. (I found two bottles in my cellar and brought one to a recent CedarCreek tasting. The other one is waiting for Ann to return to Vancouver, when I will open it for her and we’ll discuss it. I’ll let you listen in”¦)
Ann’s new venture is a very small operation. The first vintage is 2008 and the total release was just over 400 cases spread out among five varieties; we’ll look at the others sometime next month.
This is Sperling’s rustic family dinner wine: surprisingly elegant and beautifully balanced, lamb curry’s just waiting for it. The unique traditional Foch nose introduces it and the palate welcomes a warm rush of very ripe, very heady fruit. If you still like the grape, you’ll love Ann’s version of the wine.