Quails' Gate champions Old Vines Foch
Before the 1988 removal of hybrid grape varieties from the Okanagan, Maréchal Foch grapes comprised about a quarter of the entire grape harvest.
After the pull-out, Foch was only two per cent of the harvest. The variety might have vanished entirely, like Chelois, Rougeon or De Chaunac, but for the work of Quails’ Gate Estate Winery.
It can be argued that Quails’ Gate virtually saved the variety in British Columbia, even starting a modest comeback, when the winery crafted its first Old Vines Foch wine in the 1994 vintage.
Currently, the winery has three different wines on the market from its venerable Foch plantings. The Old Vines Foch Reserve sells for $40, an aggressive price for a wine from a hybrid. The wine is worth every penny.
The hybrid varieties, including Foch, were imported from France after World War II by wineries in Ontario and New York State when producers recognized that the native North American vines were never going to yield appealing table wine.
Some Okanagan growers began importing the hybrids in the 1950s and 1960s from Ontario or New York nurseries. A Quails’ Gate vineyard map shows two blocks of Foch that were planted in 1969 in its West Kelowna vineyard.
When Australian-born winemaker Jeff Martin (now the owner of La Frenz) arrived in the summer of 1994 to make Quails’ Gate wine, he discovered that the only mature red variety in the vineyard was Foch. So he proceeded to make a wine so big that, in subsequent tastings, he sometimes joked that it was a Shiraz. A marvellous full-bodied red, it was an instant a cult wine.
Foch has been unfairly denigrated. “It was not exported from France, it was deported,” is a comment I have heard from at least two senior industry figures. I think that might be a fair comment for one or two other hybrid reds but Foch got a bad rap because everybody over cropped the vines in 1970s and 1980s. Foch likes to grow like a weed but when it does, the wines are thin and acidic. Cropped properly, you get bold, ripe reds. Quails’ Gate’s Old Vines Foch Reserve has 15.5% alcohol but more than enough fruit to carry that ripeness.
The variety was created by a plant breeder in Alsace named Eugene Kuhlmann. He crossed Goldriesling (a vinifera still grown in Austria) with an American vine. It was originally released as Kuhlmann 1882. I am guessing it was named and commercialized not long after World War I because it was named for the French war hero, Marshall Ferdinand Foch.
He and Kuhlmann were contemporaries. The Marshall’s dates are 1851-1929 and Kuhlmann’s are 1855-1932. I do not know whether they were acquainted – perhaps not. Kuhlmann named some of his other grape varieties for leading French individuals as well.
For a native of Alsace, which was liberated from German rule in 1918, there could have been no hero more distinguished than the Marshal. He became the supreme commander of the Allied armies in March, 1918, and accepted the German surrender that November.
Like so many generals of the day, he was extremely gung-ho. Early in the war, he was commanding an army that found itself in a tight spot. “Hard pressed on my right,” he is supposed to have said. “My centre is yielding. Impossible to manoeuvre. Situation excellent. I attack.”
Somehow, the revival of the Maréchal Foch variety in British Columbia (more than 100 acres now) resonates in that defiant attitude.
Excellent wines from the variety are made in British Columbia by such producers as Alderlea Vineyards, Starling Lane, Larch Hills, Skimmerhorn and Sperling Vineyards, among others. One wonders how short the roll call would be if Quails’ Gate had not raised the bar in the first place.
Here are notes on the current Foch releases from that winery.
Old Vines Foch 2007 ($24.99). This robust red is made from 26-year-old vines grown in an Osoyoos vineyard that Quails’ Gate bought a few years ago. With an alcohol content of 14.9%, this is the “lighter” of the two red table wines. Grant Stanley, the current winemaker at Quails’ Gate, speculates that the extreme heat in the south Okanagan slightly retards the variety, which generally gets riper in the cooler West Kelowna site. The soils are different, too, and that may account for the fact that this wine seems a littler more tannic. It has appealing aromas and flavours of plum and spice. Some 2,784 cases have been released. The ideal food match would be venison. 87
Old Vines Foch Reserve 2007 ($39.99). Only 550 cases of this tour-de-force are available. This is a muscular wine of mouth-filling richness, with much finer tannins. The aromas show spice, plum and liquorice. On the palate, there are delicious flavours of spice, berries, chocolate and liquorice. The 15.5% alcohol is entirely appropriate for a fully ripe Foch. “Situation excellent” indeed. 90-92.
Fortified Vintage Foch 2007 ($22.99 for a half bottle). This is a port-style wine, fortified to 19% at some point during fermentation to preserve natural sweetness. Again, the wine has plum and chocolate flavours. Here the alcohol does stick out a bit. My tasting companion enjoyed the wine. My own view is that Foch lacks the structure and the complexity needed for a top Port but I am sure many will differ. The winery has released 400 cases.