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Baco Noir:

Three Bold Wines from One Blue Grape

By Janice Binkert


Photo courtesy of Double A Vineyards

It’s a cold-weather grape that elicits warm fuzzies in winegrowers, winemakers and wine drinkers alike: attractive, unfussy, reliable, generous and, above all, delicious. So why isn’t Baco Noir a star in Northern Michigan?

If you are a red wine lover, you’re no doubt familiar with Pinot Noir, and maybe even Gamay Noir, but you’ve probably never heard of Baco Noir. Neither had I, before doing this story.

There’s a reason for that: This French-American hybrid grape—a cross between Vitis vinifera Folle Blanche and an unknown variety of Vitis riparia—is not often used to make a single-varietal wine, at least not here in Northern Michigan. Rather, its juice is usually blended with that of other red grapes such as Lemberger, Cabernet Franc, De Chaunac, Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon in wines sporting catchy, marketing-friendly names on their labels—which, unfortunately, obscures Baco Noir’s own identity.

But Leelanau Cellars winery, located in the quaint little village of Omena just 20 miles north of Traverse City, has appreciated and respected Baco Noir’s many charms for years, bringing it out from behind the blends to take center stage. Those charms start with the grape’s gorgeous blueblack color and extend to its ability to grow in almost any soil except good soil, its hardiness (resistant to cold and disease), its prolific productivity, its early bud break and correspondingly early harvest time, its graceful aging and, perhaps above all, its versatility.

“Baco Noir has a distinct personality. It deserves to be featured solo,” says Tony Lentych, general manager of Leelanau Cellars. “And besides, how many grapes can you think of that can successfully be made into three different types of wine?” Indeed, the winery offers a trio of Baco Noir incarnations—a rosé, a red and a port—and customers love them all.

Leelanau Cellars winemaker Adam Satchwell has been a fan of Baco Noir since the early ‘90s, when he worked at a vineyard in Marlboro, New York. “Imagine a whole meal, beginning to end, with all Baco pairings,” he says, “starting with the rosé for appetizers or a light first course, the red for your main course and the port with dessert. Now that’s unique!” [Editor’s note: EGT agrees—see recipes and pairings on pages 30 and 32.]

The main distinction between these three versions of Baco Noir comes from the way they are fermented. The red is crushed and fermented in the skins. Different yeasts and different temperatures are used for each, and this results in three very different profiles. After trying them all, I can attest to the fact that they don’t taste like they come from the same grape!

The 2009 Baco Noir Rosé—ranging in color from peachy pink to jewel-like transparent red depending on the particular growing year—has also found favor with those whose job it is to judge wines internationally, nationally and statewide, winning gold medals at the Tasters Guild International Wine Competition and the Great Lakes Wine Competition in 2010, as well as a silver medal at the Indy International Wine Competition that same year.

Deviled Eggs with Smoked Freshwater Salmon

Serves 6 as an appetizer

Wine Pairing: Leelanau Cellars 2011 Baco Noir Rosé

6 hard-boiled eggs

1/4 pound smoked and peppered freshwater salmon

3 tablespoons white wine vinegar

4–5 tablespoons mayonnaise

2 tablespoons horseradish deli mustard

2 tablespoons capers

1 tablespoon finely chopped shallots chopped chives for garnish

Halve hard-boiled eggs and remove yolks. Arrange egg white halves on a platter.

Using a fork, flake salmon well. Add egg yolks; mash and blend with salmon. Add vinegar, mayonnaise and mustard and blend until fairly smooth; fold in capers and shallots. Resist the urge to add salt—the salmon and capers provide enough seasoning. Spoon mixture into egg white halves and top with chives.

If you have leftover filling, be glad! It also makes a great spread for crackers or bread.


Photo by Barb Tholin

Leelanau Cellars at a Glance

Established: 1974

First vintage release: 1977

Grape varieties grown:

Riesling, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Vignoles, Gewürztraminer, Muscat, Lemburger, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Baco Noir

Number of wines produced:

Over 30 varieties


75 acres spread over three vineyards in Leelanau County

Wine production:

Over 120,000 cases per year

Tasting room location:

5019 North West Bay Shore Drive (M-22), Omena

Hours of operation:

Mon—Sat 10 AM—6 PM, Sun NOON—6 PM

“It always does well in ‘People’s Choice’ categories,” says Lentych. A slightly off-dry wine, aged in stainless steel barrels for three to four months, it displays notes of plums, pears, cherries and nectarines on the palate. With its vibrant acidity, it goes well with assertive tastes such as those in Asian dishes, grilled tuna or chicken, sautéed crab cakes, smoked fish, shrimp cocktail or grilled vegetables. It is the perfect summer wine and should be served chilled.

As a red wine, Baco Noir is deep purple-red, medium-bodied, and has a slight acidity that exhibits flavors of cherries, raspberries, blackberries and plums. It is very smooth and soft on the palate, and low in tannins. Satchwell likes the fact that there is also a nice spice element that you don’t get in most reds. Some vintages have earthy, smoky undertones—a result of the 10—12 months they spend in French oak barrels—that make them a perfect match for grilled lamb, pork, beef or mushrooms, as well as hearty Italian dishes containing tomatoes.

The port version of Baco Noir is, as with any port wine, a natural accompaniment to cheeses, fruits and nuts, as well as sweet desserts. Lentych says it has developed a near-cult following and sells out almost before it hits the shelves.

The Baco Noir wines are on the low side as far as alcohol content (around 10—11 percent) and fruit-forward without being sweet. These characteristics make them very popular with a wide range of people. And, according to Lentych and Satchwell, once they discover Baco Noir, they keep coming back for it.

Baco Noir originated in France in 1902—the brainchild of Francois Baco, a French schoolteacher whose parents were winegrowers and who was passionate about grapevines. Around midcentury, however, the French sent Baco’s creation into exile, and it eventually found a warm welcome and a new home in the cooler growing regions of Eastern and Midwestern North America, among them Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Ontario. In the early ‘70s, Baco Noir was introduced in Oregon and even California, where it also thrived. My take on this history lesson: our gain and France’s loss.

Leelanau Cellars owner Mike Jacobson began growing Baco Noir way back in 1974. What made him choose this particular grape variety? “He did his homework, got a recommendation from Cornell University (which boasts one of the top viticulture and enology programs in the world), and talked to other people locally who knew about what would grow here,” says Lentych. “Cold-climate grapes are rare, though, and trying to grow them here was an experiment, of course, but it turned out very well for all of us.”

Asked how the weather problems this spring impacted the early-budding Baco Noir, Lentych looks incredulous. “What problems?” he asks. “It’s been beautiful!” But then, while acknowledging that we had indeed had unseasonably warm weather interspersed with near-freezing temperatures, he explains: Capricious weather rarely has adverse implications for this impervious grape variety.

“I’ll tell you something,” says Lentych with a smile. “We have regular vineyard meetings to discuss problems with grapes. Baco Noir is never on the list for discussion. It’s simply the most consistent, easy-to-grow red grape grown in Leelanau County.”

“Baco Noir has a distinct personality. It deserves to be featured solo.” 

Winemaker Satchwell works closely with Leelanau Cellars’ vineyard manager Marcel Lenz, and both of them are committed to growing and producing quality, consumer-friendly, affordable wines. Baco Noir fits into that picture very well. Leelanau Cellars is not the only vineyard growing this grape, but as Satchwell notes, they have the biggest commitment to it. “From a growing standpoint, it’s a dream,” he says. “It’s a very hardy vine with a large yield per acre, and it always ripens evenly, regardless of weather conditions. It’s simply the best quality fruit throughout the vineyard.”

He adds that Lenz is very knowledgeable about the growing process and, in line with the winery’s efforts to reduce its impact on the environment, uses minimal spraying—setting his own schedule by gauging the need rather than following the calendar. All the grapes are harvested by hand.

“The biggest pollution we have is noise pollution—from the bird cannons,” jokes Lentych.

All of the activity in the vineyard and barrel room is, of course, leading up to the main event—bottling the wines and getting them out to the customer. If you are a Baco Noir neophyte (as I was), Leelanau Cellars’ bright, modern and airy tasting room, idyllically situated right on the bay in Omena, is certainly one of the most pleasant places to get your first taste of it. Standing at the bar, putting the glass to your nose and inhaling while looking out at the stunning views through long walls of windows, you might be inclined to comment, as one wine writer did: “I know I’m in for a treat.”

Janice Binkert is a freelance writer, editor and translator with clients in both the United States and Europe. A passionate cook and student of all things food related, she is pursuing a degree in culinary arts at the Great Lakes Culinary Institute in Traverse City. Contact her at  jbinkert6@gmail.com.

Grilled Rack of Lamb with Herb Crust

Serves 4–6 (2–3 ribs per person)

Wine Pairing: Leelanau Cellars 2010 Baco Noir

1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley

3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh rosemary

2–3 tablespoons minced fresh garlic

1/2 cup panko breadcrumbs

6–8 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

2 frenched racks of lamb (6–8 bones each) salt and pepper to taste

Preheat a covered grill to high.

Make a panade for the herb crust by mixing herbs, garlic and breadcrumbs together in a bowl and adding just enough olive oil to moisten the mixture. It should be sticky, not runny, so that it will adhere to the lamb.

Season racks with salt and pepper to taste. Cover bones with aluminum foil to avoid burning. Sear racks on high over direct heat without panade about 2 minutes on each side with grill cover closed.

Remove racks from grill and quickly press panade onto meaty side (to avoid having them cool off ). Reduce heat to medium or put racks on a part of the grill away from direct heat. Grill for 12–15 minutes longer with grill cover closed. Check internal temperature with an instant-read thermometer at about 10 minutes. For medium rare, remove meat from grill when the temperature registers 130°. Cover with aluminum foil and rest about 5–8 minutes before carving between bones. The temperature will rise slightly during this time.

Goat Cheese Cake with Strawberries, Basil and Port

Wine Pairing: Leelanau Cellars Baco Noir Vintage Port

1 1/2 cups fine graham cracker crumbs (10 crackers)

1 tablespoon sugar

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

12 ounces soft goat cheese

1 pint sour cream

3 eggs

1 cup sugar

zest and juice of 1 lemon

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 pint small strawberries

1/4 cup sugar

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1/4 cup Port wine two stems fresh basil with leaves small fresh basil leaves for garnish crumbled goat cheese for garnish

For the crust, blend cracker crumbs, sugar and butter by hand until evenly moistened. Sprinkle evenly into the wrapped springform pan and press down firmly to form crust (do not pack hard). Gently set aside until ready to fill.

For the filling: In a food processor or by hand, blend cheese and sour cream until smooth. Blend in eggs, one at a time. Blend in sugar, lemon and vanilla until smooth and creamy. Pour mixture over the crust in the springform pan, place into roasting pan and set on oven rack. Carefully pour boiling water into roasting pan until it comes about halfway up the side of the cheesecake pan. Bake for 45 minutes and remove from oven—cake may still seem soft in the middle. Set to cool on a rack for 1 hour, then chill until serving.

For the topping, cut strawberries in half and place in saucepan with sugar, lemon, port and basil sprigs. Simmer for 5 minutes. Remove strawberries and reduce liquid by half. Discard basil sprigs, pour liquid over the berries and cool.

To serve, pour sauce over entire cake, or cut plain cheesecake slices and dress with sauce. Garnish with fresh basil and crumbled goat cheese.


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