Alicante Bouschet – The Comeback Kid

Taylor Sharp / September 21st, 2021

Widely planted in Spain, Portugal and France, Alicante Bouschet has a long and eventful history throughout the wine world. It’s had its fair share of ups and downs, in both popularity and quality, yet each time it seems to fade from the wine world’s imagination, it only comes back en vogue stronger than ever – just not in the locations you might anticipate.

It’s something of an enigma, and like Chardonnay, its flavours are largely reliant on viticultural and winemaking techniques. When grown properly, it’s capable of making fantastic wine in both quality and value. Undeniably fruit forward, its flavours encompass a wide range from jammy blackberries, blueberries, plum, and black cherries, to spicy smoky flavours, like black pepper. Sweeter tones of dark chocolate, baking spice, sweet tobacco and vanilla also aren’t uncommon in Alicante Bouschet, especially when the wine is aged in new oak.

In general, Alicante Bouschet also tends to be higher in body, alcohol and tannins than your average red wine. Plus, its structure can vary widely depending on climate. It ripens late, and loves hot, dry areas with plenty of sun. If you’re looking for a comparison, it’s similar to other rich, fruit forward reds – Zinfandel, anyone?

But, as always- there’s a lot more to this grape than just its tasting notes.

The specifics – What makes Alicante Bouschet so special?

Alicante Bouschet (or, Alicante Henri Bouschet if we’re being specific) was first cultivated by – you guessed it – French botanist Henri Bouschet. Bouschet’s father, Louis Bouschet, first cultivated Petit Bouschet back in 1824 in the French department of Herault. In the exact same region in 1866, the younger Bouschet crossed this family creation with Garnacha. The result, Alicante Bouschet, quickly gained popularity for its intense colouring, and its generous, yet sometimes overwhelming, yields.

 This intense colouring is due to Alicante Bouschet being a teinturier. Had to Google that? Me too! The word teinturier means that a grape has both red skins and red flesh. As it turns out, this feature is something of a rarity in the wine world. Saperavi, another notable example, is widely planted throughout Eastern Europe and Australia.

Alicante Bouschet is also notable for its impressive, quick yields, reaching up to 200hl/ha, or 11 tons/acre, often early in the season. Yet this blessing can also be a curse. If this productive crop is left unattended, it eventually yields deeply coloured, yet utterly tasteless fruit. Plus, an early harvest can come at the expense of alcoholic strength. Winemakers need to be meticulous in site selection, and prune aggressively, to get the best out of this vine.

Both these factors contributed to a huge surge in Alicante Bouschet’s popularity in France in the late 1880s. This rise was, oddly enough, encouraged by the phylloxera epidemic. It goes without saying that much of France’s go-to vines were devastated during this era. Alicante Bouschet’s high yields and strong colour allowed winemakers throughout Europe to get back to what they did best in quick fashion, providing much-needed ease, relief, and of course, wine.

The fall of an unlikely champion: the wax and wane of Alicante Bouschet

First and foremost, Alicante Bouschet was created as a blending grape. Its distinctive red flesh adds immense depth of colour to any wine it comes into contact with. Back in the 18th century, it was a common companion to grapes such as Aramon, a grape Jancis Robinson refers to as “once responsible for much of France’s least noble wine”. Needless to say, you see a lot more Alicante Bouschet around these days than you do Aramon.

Interestingly enough, in 19th century California, Alicante Bouschet also gained a reputation as a bootlegger’s best friend. It was often grown in the Golden State to be sold as table grapes during Prohibition- and by table grapes, I absolutely mean illicit winemaking grapes.

Alicante Bouschet’s thick skin made it sufficiently robust to withstand transportation in larger crates meant for table grapes, keeping its disguise intact. Plus, its juicy flesh meant that illicit winemakers could press the grapes several times, and ensure that no juice went to waste. Pinot Noir could never!

In the later half of the 20th century, Alicante Bouschet started to fade out of fashion in both France and California. International varietals were on the rise in these areas, and Alicante Bouschet’s productivity became its own worst enemy. It developed a reputation for uninspiring wines, which lacked greatly in varietal typicity and structure. Plantings began to drop within France in the 1980s, and today, it ranks 13th among all varietals planted there.

Enter the Iberian Peninsula – Spain and Portugal’s Alicante Bouschet renaissance

While plantings of Alicante Bouschet continue to decline in its homeland of France, Spain and Portugal are stepping up to the plate to save this unique grape from the ether.

Don’t get me wrong- you’ll still find bold, earthy Alicante Bouschet throughout France. The majority of plantings are in the south, particularly Languedoc-Roussillon and South West France. Jura and the Val de Loire also produce great examples. I should note however that French examples of varietal Alicante Bouschet are rare.

Just over 1,000 acres still grow in California too, mostly in the Central Valley counties of Fresno, Joaquin and Tulare. These counties were bootlegger strongholds during Prohibition, and as such the vines remain from the Prohibition era.

Spain- where Alicante Bouschet is better known as Garnacha Tintorera- currently has a greater area of Alicante Bouschet plantings than France. You’ll find most of these vines in the Almansa region, within Castilla-La Mancha. Both single varietals and blends which also contain Monastrell and Tempranillo are common. Galicia, in the north west, and Valenciana, also have considerable acreage of Alicante Bouschet. Juicy, fruity red wines are the usual result.

It’s in the south of Portugal where Alicante Bouschet’s resurgence has been strongest. Even though it’s ancestral origins may be French, Alicante Bouschet enjoys honorary Portuguese status. It’s part of a wider move towards nobler indigenous grapes within the country- particularly in the arid southern region of Alentejo.

Alicante Bouschet was likely introduced to Alentejo sometime before the 1950s by John Reynolds at his family property, Herdade do Mouchao. The success of the property’s eponymous top wine (which, admittedly, does include some Trincadeira) inspired others in the area to plant their own Alicante Bouschet to match. Compared to other Alentejo varieties, it has deeper colour, better natural acidity, and better tannin structure. You’ll find both single varietals and blends in this region, and as with many Portuguese wines, some stunning value.

You’ll also find Alicante Bouschet in Italy- Tuscany, Sardinia and Calabria for the most part. Hungary, the former Yugoslavia, Cyprus, Switzerland, Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina also grow vines to some degree. Larger producers outside Europe, such as Australia and Chile, have their own share of Alicante Bouschet, and you can also find examples of it in far-flung destinations such as Israel, North Africa, and Brazil.

So, where to from here? Patience remains key.

Despite all the challenges, Alicante Bouschet just keeps coming back. More and more producers throughout the world are beginning to take this storied varietal seriously. Most importantly, these producers are starting to have some impressive wine to show for it. While Alicante Bouschet’s reach is undeniably global, it’s obvious that Portugal above all others has taken the challenge of resurrecting Alicante Bouschet head-on. As the Portuguese wine industry continues to produce and develop, Alicante Bouschet’s evolution will likely progress in turn, particularly in Alentejo. So, watch this space! While Alicante Bouschet may not yet have returned to its former heights of glory (and really, who knows if it ever will?), as consumers, we have the greatest job of all- sitting back, watching it happen, and enjoying the results as they reach our shores.

Don’t you just love a good comeback story?