Here Come the Hybrids

By: Nan McCreary

We hear a lot about hybrid cars, hybrid fruits, hybrid vegetables and even hybrid animals, but what about hybrid grapes? Traditionally, wines made from hybrid grapes have been a non-starter for wine lovers, but that’s about to change. As we prepare to enter a new decade, more and more wine professionals are taking a second look at hybrids, and pioneering winemakers and scientists are working to improve existing varieties and introduce new ones.

A Double-edged Vine

Hybrid grapes are the product of crossing breeding two or more Vitis species. In the U.S., these grapes are cultivated by combining the rootstock from Vitis vinifera, a European wine grape species, and North American vines, commonly Vitis labrusca and Vitis riparia. Vitis vinifera is the source of noble wines so popular today, including Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Chardonnay. Vitis labrusca is widely distributed across central and eastern Canada, and the central and northeastern part of the U.S. Vitis riparia originates in central and eastern Canada and the United States, extending as far west as Montana. Grapes from Vitis labrusca and Vitis riparia in their original form are rarely used for winemaking.

French-American hybrid wines were created as a solution for Phylloxera which devastated the vineyards of Europe in the mid-1800s. Because American grapevines were resistant to phylloxera—as well as powdery mildew, rot and other disease— scientists responded to the crisis by grafting Vitis vinifera vines onto to disease-resistant American rootstock. While these new varieties did provide a solution to phylloxera, the grapes crossed with Vitis labrusca and Vitis riparia were not as popular as those crossed with Vitis vinifera. Critics panned the hybrids because they lacked “purebred” status as well as the depth and complexity of Vitis vinifera grapes. Also, hybrid wines were often panned as “foxy,” a term describing juice that smells or tastes like musky Welch’s grape juice. These undesirable attributes caused many European countries to prohibited the use of hybrid grapes in quality wines.

Turning Tides

Today, the tide is turning for these much-maligned varieties. Unlike sensitive vinifera grapes that require particular weather conditions and soil to thrive, French-American hybrids made from Vitis labrusca and Vitis riparia can grow just about anywhere. They withstand harsh winters—some surviving in temperatures as low as -30 F—as well as arid, brutally hot Arizona summers. Hybrid cultivars are critical to the rapid changes in eastern and central vineyards. With growth in wine-related tourism exploding, wineries are showing up in locations where wine production was once thought impossible. Hybrids are also increasingly popular because they are resistant to many diseases, which encourages growers to farm organically. Even the EU is encouraging producers to reconsider hybrid grapes, as cost and health concerns from fungicides continue to rise.

Much of the success of hybrid grapes today can be attributed to the enology departments at the University of Minnesota and Cornell University, which have been breeding hybrid wine varieties since the 1970s and 1980s. Minnesota’s wine grape research enjoys recognition as one of the top programs in the U.S., with the goal of developing high-quality, cold-hardy and disease-resistant wine grape cultivars. Cornell is home to one of the top viticulture and enology programs in the world with international recognition for its expertise in breeding table, juice and wine grapes adapted to cool-climate growing regions. Programs at both schools dedicate research to producing new grapes with potential for flavor and winemaking, with an ideal balance between cold-hardiness and delicate flavors.

The following is a list of the most popular French-American hybrids in the U.S., according to The Grape Grower’s Handbook by Ted Goldammer and used with permission from the publisher, Apex Publishing.

Red Wine Varieties

Baco Noir:  Produces wines that have been variously described as “Rhone-style” or “Beaujolais-style.” It is characterized by high titratable acidity at fruit maturity and produces wines of good quality that are normally deeply pigmented but low in tannin content. It develops a fruity aroma associated with aspects of herbs. The wine is grown primarily in Canada, New York, Oregon and Nova Scotia.

Chambourcin:  Considered one of the best of French-American hybrids, is a highly rated wine used often used for blending with other wines. The grape produces a deep-colored wine with a full, aromatic flavor, and no unpleasant hybrid flavors. It can be made into a dry style or one with a moderate residual sugar level, giving it a pleasant but not overbearing sweetness. Wines from this grape are higher in tannins than other French-American hybrids. Varietal descriptors include raspberry, cloves, cherry, plum, and tobacco. The wine may be found in Ontario (Canada), Missouri, Pennsylvania, Michigan, North Carolina, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, New York and New Jersey.

Chancellor:  The wine quality is among the better of the French-American hybrids, and it does well alone or in blends. It produces a medium-bodied red wine which is capable of aging well. It tends to be very colored, and care should be taken not to extract too much color from the skins. It’s an important grape in the cooler regions of Canada and the U.S., such as the Finger Lakes Region of New York.

Frontenac:  Produces deep-colored wines with cherry, blackberry, black currant, and plum notes. It can also be used in production of port-style-wines. The University of Minnesota developed the grape and released in 1996. Because Frontenac can survive in temperatures as low as -30 F, it is planted across the Northeastern part of the U.S. and Canada and is one of the most commonly planted wine grapes in Minnesota.

Maréchal Foch:  Possesses Burgundian characteristics, having a vibrant, deep purple color, with a light-medium structure and dark berry fruit characteristics. Some tasters find the similarities to Burgundy Pinot Noir become more pronounced with age. Maréchal Foch is one of the hardiest of the hybrids and is widely grown commercially throughout the Midwestern U.S. and Canada.

Norton (Cynthiana):  Produces a rich, full-bodied dry red wine with berry flavors and spicy overtones. It can be used in varietal wines, including ports, but may also be blended with other reds. These wines have an intense color. Norton is grown in the Midwestern U.S., Mid-Atlantic States, Northeastern Georgia and, most recently, in California.

White Wine Varieties

Cayuga:  Produces a European style white table wine, which has medium body and good balance. This versatile grape can be made into a semisweet wine, which brings out the fruit aromas, or if oak aging, into a dry, less fruity wine. The Cayuga White grape was developed especially for the Finger Lakes Region in New York by Cornell University, and is known for producing fine sparkling wines.

Chardonel:  Is a cross of Seyval Blanc and Chardonnay that produces an excellent wine, with aromas characteristic of both parents. Chardonel has the potential for fine-quality, dry still wines produced with barrel fermentation and/or barrel aging. Chardonel is popular in the Midwestern U.S. and the Mid-Atlantic states.

Seyval Blanc:  Produces a fresh, crisp wine that is often described as good with attractive aroma, but the body is somewhat thin. Malolactic fermentation or barrel fermentation followed by oak aging will enhance the quality. The variety is also popular in Canada and the Midwestern U.S. and the Eastern U.S., particularly New York.

Traminette:  Is a late mid-season white wine grape which produces wine with distinctive floral aroma and spicy flavors, characteristic of its Gewürztraminer parent. Traminette’s relatively high acid and low pH help complement its fresh-fruit aromas and flavors. The wine can be made dry or sweet but is usually finished with some residual sweetness. The wine is grown on the East Coast of the U.S. and in the Midwest.

Vidal blanc:  Is considered one of the best of the white French-American hybrids. The wine produced from Vidal blanc is fruity, with grapefruit and pineapple notes. The wines produced can be quite versatile, ranging from off-dry German style wines to dry, barrel-fermented table wines. Due to its high acidity and fruitiness, it is particularly suited to sweeter, dessert wines. It is especially popular as an ice wine in Canada. You can also find Vidal Blanc the Eastern and Midwestern U.S.

Vignoles:  Produces excellent wines of many different styles, depending on the region where the grapes are grown. Most commonly, however, Vignoles is produced as an off-dry wine or as a dessert wine, especially when picked late in the season. The fruit can have a high sugar content while retaining high acidity. Vignoles is one of the mainstays of the Eastern North American wine industry. It is also prevalent in the Midwest and been called “Missouri’s favorite white wine.”

This list is by no means comprehensive. Cornell and Minnesota have created hundreds if not thousands of new varieties. In 2006, Minnesota introduced two cold-hardy grapes, Marquette and La Crescent. Marquette, a red grape, is said to have the characteristics of Vitis vinifera grapes, while La Crescent has been touted as the perfect choice for Riesling lovers. More recently, Minnesota released the Itasca hybrid, which has drawn comparisons to Sauvignon Blanc.

While French-American hybrids may not have reached the international status of Vitis vinifera wines, the future is wide open for these varietals. Researchers are continuing to develop grapes that produce desirable qualities, and growers are experimenting in site selection, growing techniques and winemaking. Hybrids are getting a second look, too, as an option to offset climate change. Researchers at the University of California Davis are trying to create heat resistant grapes that produce quality wines. In France, the INAO has approved a third category of grape varieties “for climate and environmental adaption” that allow regions to conduct their research on heat-resistant grape varietals.

Wines made from hybrid grapes continue to improve by leaps and bounds. Whether used to offset global warming, promote sustainability, due to changes in consumer tastes or the “localvore” movement, the time is right for these former “mutts” of the wine world. Who knows, one day a hybrid may take its rightful place in wine shops as “America’s grape,” and become a rising star in the international wine scene. Stay tuned!

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