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Grape Profile – Alicante Bouschet


Common Names: Alicante Bouschet (Portugal) Garnacha Tintorera (Spain) – Dark juiced hybrid grape that can produce deep dark wines, with spice, rich fruit and a gentle earthiness.

Trivia fact number one: Most red grapes have white juice! This is best illustrated by the fact that most wines from Champagne are white, yet almost all contain small or large amounts of Pinot Noir – a red grape. In fact, there are only a few wine grapes which contain red juice. Alicante Bouschet is one of them.

To be honest, I have had a very limited experience with Alicante Bouschet. In my old wine shop in Minnesota, we used to make jokes about bad wines being made from this grape. “Oh, I bet it’s just a bunch of Alicante Bouschet”, we would say while laughing hysterically. Our ignorance wasn’t completely off base when we dismissed this grape as unexciting grape juice. Originally, a cross-breed developed in France of Petite Bouschet (a cross itself) and Grenache, it had been a workhorse in wine making industry for a significant portion of its history. With possible yields as large as 12,000 tons per acre, it produced juice for industrial wine making operations for centuries.
Actually, my favorite story of Alicante Bouschet comes from the black days of prohibition in America when many California winemakers took to growing this high yielding grape to ship around the country in hopes of making a bit of cash until prohibition eventually fell. Here’s the best part: with each order of grapes, they would include instructions as to how not to let your grapes turn into wine. Very exact instructions, such as:

1) Don’t accidentally let your grapes sit in a large container where they will be crushed by their own weight. 2) If the grapes begin to bubble in the container, stop it immediately or else it shall produce alcohol. Etc. etc. etc.

Thankfully for us, this period had ended, but the consequences stemming from this period in history has not bared well for Alicante Bouschet. After prohibition, it was kept in production not only to add color to lighter wines, but also as a bulk wine additive – downplaying the respect it so rightly deserves. Even today, I found sites that say there are only between 5000 and 900 acres that still exist in California. The thing is when I was in the Alentejo last week, each and every winery showcased their wines made from Alicante Bouschet for me. In fact for many it was the primary grape in their high end blends, and for the most part I was amazed by them. These were dense rich, complex wines that made me want to go back again and again to try them. I couldn’t believe it. In fact one site I found had this to say:

“Primarily used as a blending grape where color and tannin are needed, only a very few California wineries have offered Alicante Bouschet as a varietal. On its own, Alicante Bouschet generally makes wine that lacks distinction in character and has texture that is somewhat coarse. Although color is its main asset, it is also unstable, browning and precipitating easily.”

When I asked winemakers how a varietal known to make outstanding wines in the Alentejo is being slammed as a second rate grape elsewhere, they told me it all comes down to how you handle it. It does produce high yields; therefore, you need to do extensive green pruning (removing green bunches of grapes to reduce yields) in the summer. Then, in the fermentation stage, the winemakers need to remain sensitive to the point at which the wine could become oxidized and loses its rich phenolics. Upon telling one winemaker that he couldn’t expect me to believe that you could create a long lasting Alicante Bouschet of high quality, he proceeded to give me a barrel sample that had been in oak for 16 months. WOW rich, complex with light spice, rich red and black fruits, and a finish that felt eternal. This was not what I expected. I quickly made a mental note to try Alicante at every bodega I visited, consistently tasting wines that defied my previously held beliefs on this rouge grape. One of the winemakers had tried a 40 year old bottling of a high-end 100% Alicante Bouschet from a Bodega in Mouchão that still contained incredible body and vivacity.

Do I think that Alicante Bouschet is on the track to take over the world once people wake up to its potential? The short answer is no. On the other hand, if a few people go out and taste a wine or two from the Alentejo and see what can be made from it, who knows. At the root of this discovery is the problem that I hope to help combat with our blog, grape diversity. Just because you have a grape that produces lousy wine does not mean that you should toss it to the wayside and forget about it. Because of discoveries like this particular varietal, we should guard them and continue to cultivate them if only in small plots – make a test batch of wine from them once in awhile with new techniques or blend it in new ways. Not every attempt will be a success, but you might be surprised at what you find. Diversity is our planet’s greatest resource, and without it, we risk stagnation in our daily lives and options for future generations. Next time your in your wine shop, ask for some Alicante Bouschet, and if they don’t have it, make sure to follow up with, “Well then give me a wine with another grape I can’t pronounce!”

Till soon,

Ryan Opaz

  • 2003 Herdade do Esporão Alicante Bouschet – Portugal, Alentejo (2/19/2006)
    Deep dark and purple to core, in fact light barely gets through this one. The nose is a mix of vanilla, pepper, wet slate, and nuts, all smeared across a palate of dark fruits. In the mouth it causes me to drool with it’s lush texture and fine tannins. The oak makes itself known in the background as myriad flavors come through in the mouth with cherry, blackberries, dark chocolate, pepper, cut grass and pure grape notes being only a few.

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