Recently, on the New York Times‘ wine blog, The Pour, asked “How Important Is It for a Red Wine to Be a Dark Color?” On the face of it, this seems perhaps to be a silly question, but it’s not. Consumers notice, and are more often than not impressed by a wine’s dark color. The reasons for this are not necessarily black and white, but winemakers know it, and it’s a big part of why they blend, say Grenache with Syrah or Zinfandel with Petite Sirah. In both of these very common blends, the latter grape is much darker than the former. An effort to achieve dark color is also why winemakers feel inclined to use extended maceration times because the longer the skins hang around with the juice, the darker the resulting wine will be.
Anyone who has ever provided wine in a service setting — restaurant, bar, winery tasting room — knows dark color matters, too. Being a member of this group I can attest to this fact. If I had a dollar for every time I heard a customer exclaim delightedly, “Wow! Look at that color,” upon seeing a dark wine poured in his glass, I could buy myself lots of deliciously pale (and expensive) Barolo.
But, there’s proof that dark wine matters beyond observational experience and drawing conclusions about why winemakers do the things they do. There is Alicante Bouschet.
Alicante Bouschet is a grape that is known as a teinturier variety. While 99.9% of grapes have clear juice regardless of the color of the skin, tenturier varieties have red juice. What does this mean for wine? Darker color. From the late 19th century up until the 1960s, a grape called Aramon was the most widely planted winegrape in France. Aramon was good at some things. It was very productive and naturally resistant to many diseases, but in terms of color and flavor, it was sorely lacking. Enter an ancient teinturier variety called Teinturier du Cher, which is an ancestor (a grandparent, if you will) to Alicante Bouschet. Not only was Tenturier du Cher blended with Aramon to boost its color and flavor, in 1824 Louis Bouschet crossed the two creating a new variety called Petit Bouschet. Later, his son Henri crossed Petit Bouschet with Grenache and Alicante Bouschet was born.
Alicante Bouschet also made its way to California, but there’s not much to be found today, having been displaced in favor of more popular grape varieties and because we now have the modern technology to extract deep color from most any grape we want. With the exception of Francis Ford Coppola’s Alicante Bouschet, which comes from Lodi, it’s now most often found in very small amounts in zinfandel blends that come from old vine vineyards in northern Sonoma County. Today, Alicante Bouschet is more a curiosity than a major player, but the mere fact of its existence is proof that human beings are attracted to dark colored wines. Whether that’s silly or not.