Alicante Bouschet: An eccentric grape with a unique history

Photo courtesy of UC-Davis Foundation Plant Services

Many years ago, so many for me as to have forgotten the finer details of a viticulture class I took at UC-Davis, I was tasked with learning the science of ampelography. Ampelography is the field of botany that focuses on the identification and classification of grapevines based on the morphological characteristics that they present in the leaves and fruit. We were required to memorize these characteristics for subsequent vineyard field exams where we were sent with a map and answer sheet to a specific row, then vine position to identify that particular vine. You start by looking at the fruit, white or red, and then look at the leaves. One vine with the likes of white grapes and naked veins on the basal leaf area being identified as Chardonnay were a cinch. The huge leaf with woolly undersides of the Concord grape, Vitis labrusca and some of the rootstocks, like the plunging neckline in the leaves of Riparia Gloire were also pretty easy. However, the red grapes were more difficult for me; they all looked the same, except for two: Rubired and Alicante Bouschet. I knew they were the only two red grape varieties in the field that the juice was in fact, red — so I had a fifty percent chance of getting the correct answer when the juice showed red, a trait known as teinturier. More on that latter, but Rubired has a relatively young history, while Alicante Bouschet has an older, more storied history.


Teinturier, as written in Jancis Robinson’s Wine Grapes, (Harper Collins, 2012) means “. . . dyer, in French, may be used to refer to any dark skinned variety that is used to deepen the colour of a blend. However, we have used it in the stricter sense of a variety that produces deeply coloured juice and wine because the berries are red-fleshed.” Red wines typically get their color from color molecules called anthocyanins, which in most grape varieties, are located in the vacuoles of cells in the skins of the grape berries. In the winemaking process, these molecules are extracted and lend color to the previously unpigmented juice. Some red varieties have higher expressions of anthocyanins than others, and that, combined with the specifics of the winemaking process, you will get variable degrees of color in the resulting wines. But the teinturier, have anthocyanins in the juice, pulp, and the skins, making extraction from the skins less important, and less skin contribution, lends to the opportunity to have deeply pigmented wines, and not have to deal with the drying sensations, also known as astringency, when trying to excessively squeeze the color from the skins.


Alicante Bouschet was created at the Domaine de la Calmette in Maugio, France by Henri Bouschet, the son of Louis Bouschet, who created one of the parents of Alicante Bouschet. Petit Bouschet was created in 1824. The other parent of Alicante Bouschet was Grenache. This cross was made in 1855 and initially called Alicante Henri Bouschet and its sibling Alicante Bouschet number 1 (No.1).

Ten years later he created six more siblings that were morphologically similar but the wines resulting from them were of varying quality. Yields in the vineyard varied and there was much confusion as to what was really planted. All of these siblings were referred to collectively as Alicante Bouschet. However, time passed and all but the most productive selections fell out of favor. Today, we think of Alicante Bouschet as a mix of Alicante Henri Bouschet and Alicante Bouschet No. 2.

Alicante Bouschet Viticulture

Viticulturally it is early to bud with early to mid-season ripening. The early budding makes it more susceptible to spring frosts, but its yields are reported to be high (11 tons/acre, 25 metric tons/ha) as long as the vines and fruit stay healthy. It is susceptible to most bacterial and fungal diseases except powdery mildew. It is well known for its thick skin, which plays into the winemaking process and its history.

Popular in France after the phylloxera devastation of the mid nineteenth century, it has been in decline since the 1980s. In 2012, it was reported to be the thirteenth most planted grape in France. Mostly in the south, but some plantings are found in the Jura and the Loire River Valley. Spain boasts almost 55,000 acres where it is known as Garnacha Tintorera. It is becoming increasingly popular in the hot and dry Alentejo region of Portugal where it is incorporated into blends. There are some plantings reported in South America (Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay) but it has not really caught on. Alicante Bouschet comprises less than a thousand acres in California, mostly from the San Joaquin Valley south to Tulare.

The plantings in California hold some significance and history for the United States as a whole. Section 29 of the Volstead Act of 1918, more commonly known as Prohibition (Boo! Hiss!), allowed the personal production of up to two hundred gallons (757 L) of wine or “non-intoxicating cider and fruit juices” per year per household as long as it was not sold. This loophole was the result of California wineries not wanting to be put out of business, unless they ripped out all their grapevines and planted something else, so they lobbied Washington, DC. California wineries started selling concentrated grape juice ‘bricks,’ that when water was added to them, made grape juice. Alcohol-free, unless you put it away someplace cool and dark for 21 days. Of course, there were disclaimers on the grape brick packaging that discouraged this practice. In fact, there were “experts” who could advise on how not to use the brick as well. (wink, wink). The reality of the Volstead Act was that vineyard acreage increased, and because of the high yields and deeply pigmented juice, characteristic of Alicante Bouschet, it was planted to a point where it totaled about a third of all the personal wine production in the United States.

After the repeal, it was a different story. Section 29 was retained, which is the premise by which we can still make wine at home. However, at the time, the wine consuming public now had access to the world wine market again, and being more discriminatory, they were passing over the harsh wines made from high-yielding grapes such as Alicante Bouschet. California vineyard area decreased and Alicante Bouschet fell out of favor over the following 60 years.

Alicante Bouschet Enology

The wines from Alicante Bouschet can actually be very light and fruity, but because it is grown in warmer regions, the winemaker needs to consider looking at the acidity to help with the overall wine’s structure. During the years of Prohibition, it was often pressed twice to squeeze as much juice and color out of them, before the juice was concentrated into “brick” form. The double squeeze also produced other compounds, which we know today lead to bitterness and astringency. But those were desperate times.

To make Alicante Bouschet from grapes into a light, fruity wine, utilize a soft pressing technique. De-stem and crush the berries and transfer to your press. Since the juice is pigmented, the process should simply involve separating the solids from the juice. If you are looking for yield, then separate the free run to one vessel and press a little firmer to another vessel. Keep separate and consider bench blending the two in some carefully chosen ratio for the finished wines. The light and fruity wines of Alicante Bouschet should be consumed young. Wines with a little more body can go to a barrel. I certainly can’t imagine the wines produced during Prohibition lasted very long. One of the more common uses is to use it to add color to lighter pigmented red wines – a little can go a long way, so they say!

Now back to the other grape I had that fifty percent chance of getting right in my ampelography exams, a variety aptly named Rubired. It also expressed the teinturier and was bred by one of the all-time grape breeders in California, Harold Olmo in 1938. Rubired has a complex pedigree consisting of Vitis vinifera and Vitis rupestris species, and of course, Alicante Henri Bouschet. The oldness of Alicante Henri Bouschet leads to the newness of Rubired. Touché!

Alicante Bouschet Recipe (5 gallons/19 L)

This is a simple way to make Alicante Bouschet from juice concentrate. Juice concentrates generally are adjusted for pH and acidity so that no further adjustments are necessary. Using a concentrate is an easy way to make wine. Consult the manufacturer’s specifications included with the juice.

Alicante Bouschet Juice Concentrate, ~68-70 °Brix (5 cans, 46-oz. packaging). This product is readily available through various home winemaking suppliers.
3.5 gallons (13 L) distilled/de-ionized water or chlorine-free water
5 grams Lalvin EC1118
10% potassium metabisulfite (KMBS) solution. Weigh 10 grams of KMBS, dissolve into about 50 milliliters (mL) of distilled water. When completely dissolved, top up to 100 mL total with distilled water.
5 grams Go-Ferm (or equivalent yeast starter)
10 grams Fermaid K (or equivalent yeast nutrient)

Other Equipment or Needs
6-gallon (23-L) food-grade plastic bucket for fermentation.
5-gallon (19-L) carboy
1 to 2 one-gallon (3.8-L) jugs
Ability to warm about 4 gallons (15 L) of water to 65–70 °F (18–21 °C)
Ability to maintain a fermentation temperature of 65–70 °F (18–21 °C)
Ability to hold wine at 38–45 °F (3–7°C) while settling
Thermometer capable of measuring between 40–110 °F (4–43 °C) in one degree increments
Pipettes with the ability to add in increments of 1 milliliter

Step by step
1. Clean and sanitize your winemaking tools, supplies, and equipment.

2. Warm water to 65–70°F (18–21 °C). You will use 3.5 gallons to dilute the concentrate.

3. Add five cans of juice concentrate, using the warmed water to completely dissolve remaining concentrate in the can. Mix well. This can be done in the bucket or a pot on the stove. In the end, you will have about 5.5 gallons (21 L) of juice in the bucket at about 22.5 °B.

4. Mix in to the juice the Fermaid K or equivalent yeast nutrient.

5. Prepare yeast. Heat about 50 mL distilled water to 108 °F (42 °C). Mix the Go-ferm into the water to make a suspension. Measure the temperature. Pitch the yeast when the suspension is 104 °F (40 °C). Sprinkle the yeast on the surface and gently mix so that no clumps exist. Let sit for 15 minutes undisturbed. Measure the temperature of the yeast suspension. Measure the temperature of the juice. You do not want to add the yeast to your cool juice if the difference in temperature of the yeast and must exceeds 15 °F (8 °C). To avoid temperature shock, acclimate your yeast by taking about 10 mL of the juice and adding it to the yeast suspension. Wait 15 minutes and measure the temperature again. Do this until you are within the specified temperature range. Do not let the yeast sit in the original water suspension for longer than 20 minutes. When the yeast is ready, add it to the fermenter.

6. Initiate the fermentation at room temperature (~65–68 °F/18–20 °C). You should see signs of fermentation within about one to two days. This will appear as some foaming on the juice. Maintain this temperature.

7. Normally you would monitor the progress of the fermentation by measuring Brix. One of the biggest problems with making wine at home is maintaining a clean fermentation. Entering the carboy to measure
the sugar is a prime way to infect the fermentation with undesirable microbes. So at this point, the presence of noticeable fermentation is good enough. If your airlock becomes dirty by foaming over, remove it, clean it, and replace as quickly and cleanly as possible. Sanitize any-thing that will come in contact with the juice.

8. Leave alone until bubbles in the airlock are about one bubble per minute. Usually about two to three weeks. Now measure the brix.

9. The wine is considered dry, or nearly dry when the Brix reaches -1.5 °Brix or less. At this point, add 3 mL of fresh KMBS (10%) solution per gallon of wine. This is the equivalent to ~40 ppm addition. Transfer the wine to the 5-gallon (19-L) carboy and lower the temperature to 35–45 °F (3–7 °C). Fill to the top and close with a solid stopper or airlock. Be sure to maintain the liquid in the airlock to prevent exposure to air.

10. After two weeks, test for pH and SO2, adjust as necessary to attain 0.8 ppm molecular SO2. (There is a simple SO2 calculator on the Web at www.winemakermag.com/guide/sulfite). Check the SO2 in another two weeks, and then rack the wine, adjusting the SO2 at this time if necessary. HINT: Rack to another sanitized 5-gallon (19-L) carboy. Once the free SO2 is adjusted, maintain at the target level by monitoring every 3-4 weeks. Check for sediment and rack possibly once more prior to bottling.

11. At about three months you are ready to bottle. Be sure to maintain sanitary conditions while bottling. Once bottled, you’ll need to periodically check your work by opening a bottle to enjoy with friends.

Sulfur Dioxide Additions
The recipe calls for specific additions of sulfur dioxide at specified intervals. Once these scripted additions are made, you must monitor and maintain at the target concentration; adjusting as necessary using the potassium metabisulfite solution previously described or by methods of your own choosing. Testing can be done at a qualified laboratory, or in your home cellar using various commercially available kits.