Monday, May 14, 2007

Wine 101 - Blanc Du Bois

Traditionally, grapes are cultivated in each region based on geographic conditions, and not necessarily on which wine is is most popular in the market. In this regard, American winemakers in the southeast and Gulf states have been limited in the grapes that they can cultivate because the humid conditions of their terrior promote the development of Pierce's disease. Vitis Viniferia grapes are particularly susceptible to this disease, in which bacteria attacks the "water conducting" elements of the vines (xylem). Thus wine growers in this region were primarily dependent on growing native Muscadine grapes, which were mostly resistant to the disease. Researchers at the University of Florida’s Leesburg Research Station, began a program to create a new grape that was fully resistant to Pierce's disease. Led by Dr. John Mortenson, in 1968, the team was able to develop a complex hybrid grape from crossing a Florida-developed muscadine hybrid with the Cardinal (a Vinifera hybrid) table grape. They called this new white grape Blanc Du Bois, and claimed that is was completely resistant to the destructive disease. For the past two decades, southern winemakers have validated this claim by producing dry, fruity Blanc Du Bois wines, many which have won medals in international competitions. Although Florida was it's original birthplace, this grape has flourished in other humid regions in the United States, particularly in Texas.

One Texas winery, Haak Vineyards & Winery, was one of the first wineries in the country to cultivate Blanc du Bois. In the early 1970’s Raymand Haak contacted the University in Florida after reading about their efforts to create a grape resistant to Pierce's Disease. He ordered a few Blanc du Bois vines and began experimenting with the grapes he grew. He believed that it had great potential to produce premium wines and encouraged other local vineyards to plant the variety. His foresight has proven correct since his winery has produced numerous medal winning dry and off-dry Blanc du Bois wines. The winery’s best wine comes from the two acres of 24 year old vines growing in his vineyard. In addition, the winery is able to purchase tons of quality Blanc du Bois grapes from commercial growers in his region. From these grapes, Haak Winery produces two distinct styles of wine. The first style is finished off-dry with 3% residual sugar. If exhibits a flavor profile similar to a nice clean crisp Riesling with flavors of peach, pear, pineapple and other tropical fruit. The second style is finished dry. It exhibits citrus flavors with grapefruit being predominant and finishing with slight hints of lemon, banana, and honey – similar to a clean crisp New Zealand style Sauvignon Blanc. However, Mr. Haak explains, “make no mistake about it, Blanc du Bois is its own grape variety and is winning loyal consumers every day”. These “loyal consumers” purchase the entire stock of each year’s vintage and even includes wine judges, who have awarded Haak Winery medals for its Blanc du Bois, since the first vintage. Among the many medals awarded in 2005, were Silver at the Indiana International Wine Competition, Bronze at the Finger Lakes International Wine Competition, and Silver and Bronze at the Texas Best Wine Competition. In addition, the dry Blanc du Bois was awarded Best of Show at the Texas Best Wine Competition. The primary hindrance that Mr. Haak experiences is the lack of name recognition that encumbers several of the varieties reported in this Vitis Labrusca section. Blanc du Bois is sold primarily through the tasting room, where the general public overwhelmingly enjoys the unique characteristics of this grape. However, he does not expect the wine buyer to purchase this wine at a retail outlet, when they probably have never heard of the fruit. He has even had name recognition problems with wine judges, where one was reported to ask “What grape is this wine made from?”

Two other Texas wineries, Los Pinos Ranch Vineyards and Tehuacana Creek Vineyards and Winery, started cultivating Blanc Du Bois after looking for a vine that is resistant to Pierce disease and as a bonus, found that this grape makes world class wine. Los Pinos Ranch is a small family-owned winery located in east Texas almost half way between Dallas and Shreveport. The winery’s philosophy is to encourage people to be adventurous in your wine tasting, and to meet this goal, they are producing three versions of Blanc Du Bois. The first is a dry white wine - similar to Viognier; the second is a semi-sweet wine in a Riesling style; and the third will be a malolactic barrel fermented dry wine that will taste like peaches. As with many non-vinifera grapes, many “wine critics/experts” have preconceived notions about what grapes and regions will produce good wine and thus give Blanc Du Bois scant notice. Jeff Sneed, the winery’s winemaker, is firmly convinced that given a blind taste test, Blanc Du Bois can compete with any “French” grape. We completely agree with Mr. Sneed when he advises, “Don’t listen to wine ‘experts’. Most people know what tastes good when they put it in their mouth.”

Tehuacana Creek Vineyards and Winery is a family owned and operated vineyard located in Waco, Texas. They are pleased to be able to produce a unique and premium white wine such as Blanc du Bois without having to produce “yet another Chardonnay”. Their Blanc du Bois is aged in stainless steel which gives the wine a crisper and livelier fruit taste which further distinguishes it from classic American whites. According to the winery, their Blanc du Bois combines the crisp fruit of a Riesling with the aromatic flavors of a Muscato and a touch of spiciness reminiscent of a Gewürtztraminer. It has also received a welcome reception from the Texan wine public by earning accolades at this year's Annual Heart of Texas Wine and Food Festival. Ulf Westblom, the winery’s Winemaker, also recommends aging the wine for several years – unlike other white wines, Blanc du Bois will further develop in the bottle.

Traveling east into Louisiana, Landry Vineyards has been cultivating Blanc Du Bois since the vineyards were first planted in 1999. Located in the town of Folsom, in St. Tammany Parish, the winery seeks to produce quality Louisiana wines that are distinctive to the region and Blanc Du Bois meets this criteria based on its resistance to Pierce disease, its tolerance to heat and its ability to produce quality wine. Landry Vineyards produces three versions of the wine: Blanc Du Bois Dry, Blanc Du Bois Oak Aged, and Blanc Du Bois Semi-Sweet. According to the winery’s tasting notes, “each version possesses clean crisp flavors of fruit including peach, pear, tropical fruit with hints of wood character and honey-suckle aromas”. Jeff Landry, the owner/winemaker, believes this grape produces a nice wine and is excited about their current success producing Blanc Du Bois.

Blanc du Bois will never receive the public exposure as Chardonnay or Riesling. But its worth a try.
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