by Andrew Chalk Photo courtesy of Russ Kane, VintageTexas.com
Nobody chooses to grow the grape Blanc du Bois. It is a concession to necessity in parts of the country afflicted with Pierce’s disease (PD). For the U.S., that means a concentration in the south east of the country where humid climatic conditions are ideal for the disease’s propagation via the vector of the glassy-winged sharpshooter and other insects. Blanc du Bois was created at the University of Florida in the 1960s specifically to withstand PD. It is a cross of vitis vinifera varieties like Golden Muscat with native American varieties and was commercially released in 1987.
The flavor profile of the resulting wine has been described as apple, tropical fruit, peach, citrus, lemon, rose and honey. However, consumer tastings report a frequent ‘foxiness’, common with hybrid grape varieties. The foxiness is intimately tied to high levels of pyrazines in the grape.
It’s defining characteristic, resistance to PD, has been proven and it has spread from South Carolina through Florida, Alabama, Louisiana to Texas as a white grape solution to that problem. Its largest plantings are in Texas with over 150 acres and more than 20 wineries using it to make wine.
Turning to Texas, the character of the wine produced was traditionally either a semi-sweet or a dry table wine. Usually neither would be oaked, although some mature barrels were occasionally used. The semi-sweet wines sold, often well, from the cellar door and occasionally made in-state distribution. The dry whites appeared to do better in distribution in-state than their semi-sweet counterparts. However, neither expression indicated an ability to steer consumers away from other white varieties, particularly Chardonnay (the most popular grape variety in the U.S.) or Sauvignon Blanc.
The comparison with Sauvignon Blanc is apposite because it is tempting to see the dry, crisp expressions of Blanc du Bois as competition for Sauvignon Blanc in the mainstream market. Unfortunately, even if the foxiness can be suppressed with better winemaking techniques, there are commercial problems. Most straightforward Sauvignon Blanc is produced in developing countries with labor costs that are a fraction of those in Texas. As a result, they can deliver a bottle of drinkable, if simple, Sauvignon Blanc at a retail price of $7 or less in the U.S. market. It doesn’t make sense for Texas producers to chase this market.
So what to do? Abandoning Blanc du Bois is one option. Making Texas wine in PD states would involve shipping in grapes grown in PD-free parts of the state (the High Plains in particular). However, some winemakers have decided to evolve the expression of the Blanc du Bois that they make, rather than abandoning the variety all together. The father of this approach is Raymond Haak, owner of Haak Vineyards and Winery. I do not know if he intended to find a better expression of Blanc du Bois or whether he intended to master the Estufagem Process
Hitherto unique to the wines of Madeira. Either way, his engineer’s proclivity to tinker led him to complete an estufagem in 2006 and make a Blanc du Bois wine that bore a lot in common with the sweet dessert fortified wines of Madeira. He dutifully labelled it ‘Madeira’ and its fame spread, even reaching London Master of Wine and author of The Oxford Companion to Wine, Jancis Robinson, who described it as ‘superior’. The important thing for the Texas wine industry was that here was a totally new expression of Blanc du Bois that had none of the organoleptic or commercial flaws of traditional ways of making the wine. It could be priced against Madeira, rather than low-end Sauvignon Blanc, and had the long shelf life of fortified wine that made it an attractive by-the-glass option in restaurants.
Another winemaker created an iconoclastic expression of Blanc du Bois some four years later. Dan Gatlin had sworn off all non-vinifera grapes over a decade earlier after extensive experimentation but ‘inherited’, as part of a larger deal, the management of a vineyard that had already been planted. He decided to make the best of it and worked with the viticultural teams at The Vineyard at Florence and use vertical canopy management to allow indirect sunlight to penetrate the grapes. The objective was to reduce the pyrazines. He made two Blanc du Bois wines in 2010 that could be placed in tastings of southern Rhone white wines and prove very difficult to discern. A sort of Grenache Blanc/Picpoul/Bourboulenc/Roussanne/Clairette mashup expression of Blanc du Bois.The foxiness was gone, the body weight was increased, sweetness was fruit sweetness in a nonetheless dry wine and the flavors were of tropical fruit. One wine (Aura) was put through malolactic fermentation and the other (Aurelia) made similarly but not subject to malolactic. Tasters could not guess that either was Blanc du Bois. Thus, Texas had its second new expression of Blanc du Bois that took the grape out of the ‘fighting (but mortally wounded) varietal’ category.
Recently, a third new expression of Blanc du Bois has appeared. While early, it appears to rest on sound foundations. It is dry sparkling Texas wine that could compete against Prosecco, Cava and even Champagne. Like the base wine of Champagne, the Blanc du Bois can be harvested and vinified to be high acid. Like all those competitors, the quality of the final wine is one move adrift of the quality of the base wine. Gasification (by whichever method) and dosage allow some scope for flavor manipulation from which Blanc du Bois would benefit. These sparkling wine expressions are just starting to hit the market and I have yet to try one, but reported blind tasting results are promising.
The semi-sweet and dry white expressions of Blanc du Bois are fine as cellar door revenue generators, and long may they continue. But they don’t offer retail growth, especially out of state. Madeira style sweet dessert wines are good enough to compete in a global market (but need to be part of a larger product line to get out there). Southern Rhone expressions, likewise, can project Blanc du Bois into the broader market. Sparkling wine is still in the emergent stage but could be a huge market, and maybe the largest for Blanc du Bois, if successful.
One other expression that I hope to see a Texas winemaker try is what I call the “Rombauer Chardonnay Blanc du Bois”. That is, use oak barrel sur-lie fermentation and age the wine for a year in new French oak. I saw Richard Arrowood do this with California Viognier and produce an iconoclastic wine that had heads turning at the Rhone Rangers tasting. I wonder how it would work with Blanc du Bois?