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November 23, 2022updated 22 Nov 2022 8:43pm

Hybrid vines: In from the cold

By Jim Clarke

Hybrid vines have a checkered past, respected for their cold-hardiness and disease resistance, but suspected of being less natural and giving inferior wines. Now, for many reasons—from climate change and concerns over sustainability, to scientific advances and a more open-minded new generation of producers and consumers—they have a much brighter future. Jim Clarke explains.

Very good in its way 

Is the Verzenay, 

Or the Sillery soft and creamy; 

But Catawba wine 

Has a taste more divine, 

More dulcet, delicious and dreamy. 

—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “Ode to Catawba Wine” 

Longfellow’s ode, penned in 1854, expresses a sentiment rarely heard since, at least not among drinkers of fine wine. In the mid-19th century, Nicholas Longworth’s sparkling méthode champenoise Catawba from Ohio was the most popular wine in America; by 1859 his production was twice that of the entire state of California. Longworth, a lawyer by trade and the state’s wealthiest man by 1813, had turned to winemaking in an effort to lure his fellow citizens away from the evils of distilled spirits. After struggling to grow European vinifera varieties, he planted Catawba, a Vitis labrusca-based hybrid, in 1825. Once he mastered the production of sparkling wine, his fame spread rapidly. Now, almost 200 years later, hybrids are again attracting the attention of wine growers in many parts of the world. 

Europe is vinously diverse, of course, but not vitis-ly so—that is to say, it is home to just one species of grapes, Vitis vinifera, among the 70 or so worldwide. It is, however, the only species to birth a tradition of winemaking. Hybrids are interspecies crosses, an initially innocuous, largely accidental result of the Columbian exchange that was to be deeply explored when other aspects of that same exchange made their effects felt in the vineyards of Europe.

Catawba appears to be the result of one of those chance encounters, as was Alexander, the grape used in the US’s first commercial wines, and Concord, which was isolated from a set of seedlings by Ephraim Wales Bull in Concord, Massachusetts, in 1843. It was just a decade or so later that pest and disease issues would drive grape growers to pursue hybridization, a motivation that has returned with vigor over the past few decades.

Phylloxera is the best known of the plagues that North America sprang on wine growers in the second half of the 19th century. The eventual solution for phylloxera, grafting European vinifera vines onto American rootstocks, carries little or no negative associations compared to, say, spraying the vines with chemical treatments, but the latter was necessary to treat two other major North American challenges to beset European grape varieties: downy and powdery mildew.

For a time, however, cross-breeding American and European vine species together seemed a logical solution to all three of these concerns. Grape breeders in France, the US, and elsewhere turned their attention to the problem, and names like Seyve, Villard, Baco, and Seibel live on in some of their namesake grapes. In the US, figures such as ES Rogers and TV Munson in Texas also attempted to address these issues. Ironically, Munson’s fame today—such as it is—is tied to the defeat of phylloxera, but via vine grafting rather than breeding.

Two French scientists, Jules Emile Planchon and Pierre-Marie-Alexis Millardet, and an American, Charles Valentine Riley, had hit upon the idea of using American rootstocks and grafting their vinifera vines onto them, but they had difficulty finding American vines that would tolerate the calcareous soils typical in many French wine regions. They turned to Munson for advice, and he sent them cuttings of four different Vitis species that had proven themselves in similar high-pH soils in Texas and neighboring areas.

These proved successful, and Munson was made a Chevalier de Mérite Agricole for his work in saving the French wine industry. Meanwhile, Millardet went on to discover that copper and sulfur sprays were effective in treating and preventing downy mildew. Regular spraying of Bordeaux mixture, a combination of the two together with lime and water, became common practice in vineyards around the world.

Despite these solutions, the newly introduced hybrid varieties persisted for quite some time, for they were not without their virtues. Some did indeed provide some of the disease resistance hoped for; some proved to thrive in colder climates; and many were vigorous and yielded generous amounts of grapes. France began to clamp down on their spread in the 1930s, legislating against their plantings in 1934 in the midst of planning the AOC system that would be enacted the following year.

At the time, established, known vinifera varieties were assumed to be timeless, and crossings of any sort, both intra- and interspecific, were assumed to be inferior. French/American hybrids almost entirely failed to find a home in the AOC system, the lone exception being Armagnac’s embrace of Baco 22A, a hybrid of Folle Blanche and Noah (itself a hybrid from two American species, Vitis labrusca and Vitis riparia).

Folle Blanche, long used in both Armagnac and Cognac, was particularly susceptible to black rot, another American import, and Baco 22A is resistant to the fungus. It made up more than 80 percent of Armagnac’s vineyards by the 1970s, but when effective fungicides became available, growers began turning to Ugni Blanc instead. Even though AOC rules had largely barred the door, French/American hybrids could still be found in as much as one third of France’s vineyards in the mid-1950s. Aside from the 1934 legislation, additional regulations instituted in 1955 and 1984 continued the effort. A handful—Chambourcin, Baco 22A and its cousin Baco Noir, Seyval Blanc, and a few others—persisted. 

Hybrids vines: Cold-hardy and disease-resistant but foxy?

Elsewhere in the world, they thrived more openly, enjoying relative freedom from legislation if not always a warm embrace from the public. They became popular with growers in New Zealand after phylloxera swept through the country, dominating there until Müller-Thurgau and later Sauvignon Blanc took over in the second half of the 20th century.

In Japan, Muscat Bailey A, a locally developed hybrid, has taken pride of place as a signature variety for Yamanashi, the country’s most productive wine-growing prefecture, and indeed across the country more broadly, alongside Koshu, a local Vitis vinifera variety. Its wines tend to have a red-fruited, somewhat candied character and sometimes struggle for structure on the palate.

Zenbei Kamakami bred Muscat Bailey A in 1927, and it traces its lineage from three species, vinifera (the Muscat in question being Muscat of Hamburg), labrusca, and lincencumii. There are more than 500ha (1,235 acres) planted in Japan today. American hybrids such as Niagara and Delaware are not uncommon in the country as well, and with Muscat Bailey A are permitted and promoted as typical grape varieties in several wine GIs (geographical indications), including Yamanashi, Osaka, and Yamagata.

Muscat Bailey A vines at Kurambon. Photography by Takahiko Nozawa / Kurambon Wine Company Ltd.

One of the most intriguing hybrids I’ve encountered in Japan was in the Tokachi region of Hokkaido, an area better known as the center of Japan’s dairy production. In the 1950s, Kaneyasu Marutani, the mayor of the small town of Ikeda, got it into his head that wine production would help the struggling local economy. Under his auspices, a Grape Fanciers Association formed and began a breeding program that eventually created two red varieties, Kiyomai and Yamasachi, by crossing the local, cold-hardy Vitis amurensis grapes with a vinifera vine.

Despite a shared parentage, Kiyomai makes a paler, more acid-driven wine, while the latter is more deeply colored and tannic. Such are the vagaries of grape breeding, but they blend together well and create a solid, well-balanced wine. To my knowledge, neither has spread beyond Tokachi. 

Ikeda’s Grape Fanciers turned to local Vitis amurensis varieties because they could withstand temperatures as low as -31°F(-35°C); Tokachi is insulated from the snowfall that can so dominate other parts of Hokkaido but achieves some deep chills in winter.

Breeders continued to explore hybrid varieties’ potential for disease resistance, but cold-hardiness grew in demand in the second half of the 20th century, and hybrid varieties worldwide became increasingly associated with areas too cold for vinifera vines, especially in North America and northern Europe. In the 1960s and ’70s, German breeders introduced Regent and Solaris; the latter has become known as “the Swedish grape” and is the most-planted wine grape there.

The Vitis amurensis species originated in Siberia and parts of China where an ability to endure the cold was a necessity. Grape breeder Peter Hemstad, then a professor at the University of Minnesota, told me he was unimpressed with the species; cold-resistant it may be, but like Vitis vinifera it is susceptible to several of the grape diseases North America has shared with the world. Researchers in Germany and Hungary are still exploring its potential. Many of North America’s 25 native species are also accustomed to cold, subfreezing temperatures in winter—labrusca, riparia, and vulpina in particular. 

In the US, Elmer Swenson, inspired by TV Munson, began breeding grapes on his farm in Wisconsin in 1943, crossing established French/American hybrids with local Vitis riparia varieties; later he conducted some of his work at the University of Minnesota, which became a hotbed, if you will, for cold-climate grape breeding. By the 1990s, Vitis riparia became increasingly recognized as a premier source for cold-hardy breeding material.

In upstate New York, Cornell University’s Experimental Agricultural Station has also emerged as a leader in the field. From 2011 to 2016, faculty from both those universities and nine other institutions across the northern US took part in the USDA-funded Northern Grapes Project, a program designed to increase the quality, productivity, and marketability of these cold-hardy, hybrid grape varieties. 

Marketability is indeed an issue, and has been since the very beginning. Despite the success and praise heaped on Longworth’s sparkling Catawba, many wine-drinkers have found the characteristics of non-vinifera and hybrid varieties to present aesthetic challenges. Non-vinifera varieties often struggle with developing adequate tannins, and high acidity is also common.

But the most famous catch-all, negative descriptor for wines made from non-vinifera grapes is “foxiness.” Like “minerality,” it’s one of those descriptors that is accepted and recognized by experienced tasters, but poorly defined—“grapey,” musk, candied or wild strawberry, and bubble-gum notes are all associated with it. The New York Times says French critics were more specific, describing the resulting wines as smelling of “fox urine”—which, specific and clearly negative though it is, is probably an unenlightening description to most people. 

Foxiness is strongly associated with a few chemicals, most notably methyl anthranilate, commonly found especially but not exclusively in Vitis labrusca varieties. Methyl anthranilate is harmless and is actually regularly used industrially in food flavorings and the perfume industry, but some early attempts to rid French vineyards of hybrid varieties associated it with poison.

There is the slightest bit of truth to the accusation. Vitis labrusca varieties are rich in pectins—so much so that they give the pulp of the grape an internal structure; one can pop the skin off a labrusca grape and it can still have a round, fleshy globe. The inside of the wild, presumably labrusca grapes where I grew up in the Hudson Valley felt the way my childhood friends and I imagined an eyeball might. During fermentation, these pectins break down into methanol. Research conducted in the 1970s confirmed that during fermentation enzymatic activity in Concord grapes produced a high level of methanol, which is indeed toxic: 400–500ppm, compared to 100–200ppm in vinifera varieties.

The same seems to be true for a few other varieties, notably Isabella, which was once very popular in the former USSR. Some wines are still marketed under that name, reputedly made with bulk wine from Brazil, where the variety is still heavily planted, or from other grapes and flavored with methyl anthranilate directly. Controlling and limiting levels of methanol in wines made from these varieties is managed during fermentation, so methanol poisoning is not a legitimate concern these days, but these particular hybrids rarely make it to the winery in any case. Most of Brazil’s Isabella grapes, like Concord in the US, go to making jams, jellies, and juices, where the “grapey” quality of methyl anthranilate is prized rather than despised.

Foxiness aside, hybrid varieties have largely been relegated to second-tier status, to be grown only where vinifera can’t. A few varieties have managed on occasion to crack open the door for consideration alongside traditional vinifera grapes. Seyval Blanc, developed by Bertille Seyve Jr in 1898, has demonstrated an ability to make quality wines, in particular traditional-method sparkling wines, as in the hands of Peter Hall at Breaky Bottom in Sussex, England (see WFW 76, pp.156–59). Vidal Blanc has taken a spot alongside Riesling as a favored grape for icewine production in Niagara, Canada.

In New York’s Finger Lakes, growing Vitis vinifera varieties was long considered an impossibility; the winters, it was believed, were too cold for the vines to survive. Dr Konstantin Frank, an immigrant from Ukraine with a PhD in viticulture and an understanding of cold-region viticulture, arrived in New York in 1951; seven years later, working with Charles Fournier at Gold Seal, he planted the first successful vinifera vineyards on the US East Coast.

While, in the past, wine tourism in the Finger Lakes often catered to drinkers with a taste for sweet, simple wines as long as the price was right, today the area draws serious wine drinkers looking for complex Rieslings, Cabernet Franc, and other classic vinifera varieties.

But hybrids persist; once one gets too far away from the moderating effects of the lakes themselves, growing vinifera can still be a challenge. Today, Catawba’s 864 acres (350ha) of vines still exceed the acreage of Riesling, the region’s signature variety. For most producers, however, vinifera means premium, and high-yielding hybrids fill in the lower price tiers of the portfolio. 

There is sometimes a hesitancy or sense of embarrassment in the New York wine industry when a hybrid grape comes in for praise that might otherwise have gone to a vinifera variety. For a number of years, I judged at the New York Wine Classic, a competition for the wines from across the state. It was not uncommon to hear behind-the-scenes expressions of regret or chagrin whenever a hybrid variety took Best in Class or the top award, the Governor’s Cup. But it does happen on occasion.

This year, Keuka Lake Vineyards Leon Millot, a wine I’ve often enjoyed, took Best Red Wine. (Their Vignoles is also excellent.) Misgivings arise not because the wines in question weren’t worthy, but rather because the generally accepted narrative is that hybrids are the past and vinifera varieties the future. Award-winning hybrids complicate that story.

Bringing hybrids forward 

That could be where one leaves the story of hybrids today—a curiosity. Hybrids are estimated to constitute less than 5 percent of the world’s vineyards. In western Europe, that figure falls to less than one percent, but Eastern Europe has been more open, thanks in part to Cold War-era interest in high-yielding varieties.

Almost half of Romania’s vineyards are believed to be planted to hybrids, and more than one fifth of Bulgaria’s. Right now, it is quite possible to be an open-minded wine drinker who tastes broadly and never be confronted with a wine made from a hybrid grape variety. They rarely grace the wine lists of restaurants outside of the regions they are grown, and not always within them; one must go looking for them, and the general consensus among serious wine drinkers is that they don’t merit the effort. But a handful of factors have combined to bring hybrids forward in a new manner—some predictable, some less so. 

The more foreseeable factor stems from the rise in interest in organic wine growing. Organic viticulture has increased tremendously over the past few decades—a trend that’s expected to continue and perhaps even accelerate. A Grandview Research study says the global market for organic wine, valued at $8.9 billion in 2021, is expected to grow at more than 10 percent annually through the end of the decade.

Because of their disease-resistant properties, many hybrid varieties can succeed in an organic environment far more easily than their vinifera counterparts. Some farms report that while they might spray fungicides or pesticides over a dozen times for vinifera varieties, hybrids can produce the same or better yields with only one or two sprayings—or even none at all. 

Interest in organics and sustainability lie not just in the purview of marketing and creating points of difference among wine brands. Governments have become increasingly involved, especially in Europe. France set out to reduce pesticide use across the entire agricultural sector by 50 percent between 2008 and 2018—a goal they failed to meet. Vineyards are the biggest offenders; according to the French Agricultural Ministry, vineyard land makes up 4 percent of farming land in the country, but uses 15 percent of all pesticides applied.

The EU has estimated that viticulture accounts for 40 percent of pesticide use across all European agriculture. As residential areas increasingly abut farms, residents are becoming more and more concerned about sprays and chemical applications drifting into neighborhoods and schoolyards.

The EU has also specifically called upon vineyards to reduce the use of Bordeaux mixture, that combination of copper sulfate, lime, and water that growers have been spraying on their vines to deal with downy mildew ever since Millardet came up with it in the 1880s.

Since 2018, regulations have reduced the allowable annual dose from 6kg (13lb) to 4kg (9lb) of copper per hectare, but a deeper concern lies in the excessive applications common in the mid-20th century; according to a report in Environmental Science and Technology magazine, amounts as high as 50kg per hectare (44lb per acre) were not atypical in some areas. The buildup of copper in the soils is believed to damage farmland and can leak into the water table, contaminating waterways and drinking water.

Organic growers were particularly incensed about the change. Bordeaux mixture is permitted under organic certification guidelines, and there are almost no effective organic alternatives for treating downy mildew. Conventional growers, who have a wider chemical toolkit at their disposal, nevertheless have to contend with the fact that most common vineyard pathogens regularly adapt and grow resistant to synthetic fungicides and pesticides, which must be reformulated frequently in order to keep up. Failure to keep up with the constantly evolving threat has caused availability challenges in recent years and has left some growers facing tough decisions and lost crops.

These issues put hybrid varieties into the conversation—not just for lesser-known wine regions, but for mainstream production in places like California, a point made to me by the late Andrew Walker, a professor at UC Davis, more than 15 years ago. Walker’s own work focused on yet another American pest, Pierce’s disease. His work on the subject, a 20-year process, culminated in the introduction of five new varieties, three red and two white, in 2019.

Given the slow-paced nature of grape breeding, the scientists involved approach their work with appropriately long-term views, and many, like Walker, saw the role hybrids could play in a world of organic and sustainable viticulture several decades ago. Grape breeder Bruce Reisch started at Cornell University in 1980 and has introduced ten wine-grape varieties during his tenure there. He says both disease resistance and cold-hardiness have always been goals for researchers at Cornell, but over time the emphasis has shifted more toward addressing disease pressures. Climate change has also exacerbated disease pressures in many areas, a process likely to continue.

Governments are now coming around. At the end of 2021, the European Union opened the door to allow wines from PDOs—official, registered wine appellations—to include hybrid grape varieties. It remains in the hands of the individual countries and appellations to decide which, if any, hybrids they would allow in their wines.

So, the process is gradual, but there is no lack of varieties for appellations and growers to choose from. Floreal, Vidoc, Voltis, and Artaban, developed by the French National Institute for Agronomic Research (INRA) and authorized for use in 2018, are just four of dozens of PIWI (pilzwiderstandfähig or “fungal-resistant”) varieties waiting and ready for their closeup. Austria has already authorized five hybrids for Qualitätswein production, and Bordeaux is considering experimental plantings. Nonetheless, legacy growers struggle for legal recognition in out-of-the-way areas such as Cévennes, where two old hybrids—Jacquez and Clinton—have lived on under the radar.

In less regulated areas such as the US, growers already face a bewildering number of options among hybrid varieties. Many of the classics—Baco Noir, Chambourcin, Delaware, and the like—are still around. These have the advantage of time; experienced growers and winemakers have seen these vines handle vintages of all sorts over the decades and know their ins and outs both in the vineyard and in the cellar.

There’s also been time to see where each performs best—Norton has found its home in the Midwest and mid-Atlantic states, for example. On the other hand, there is a concern among advocates for these older varieties that they’ve rarely been pushed to show their full potential. Best practices for producing truly premium wine styles may not yet be fully determined for some varieties, since production in previous decades often focused on accessibility.

At the other end of the timeline are the many new hybrids introduced over the past half-century, some as recently as this millennium. The most notable examples in the US, alongside Walker’s Pierce’s disease-resistant varieties, are those from Cornell and the University of Minnesota.

Traminette, for example, was originally intended to be a table grape. Bred by Herb Barrett at the University of Illinois in 1965, the seedlings were planted and studied at Cornell, which eventually released it for public use in 1996. It has since found popularity up and down the East Coast of the US. In 2006, Cornell released Valvin Muscat, Corot Noir, and Noiret. University of Minnesota’s Marquette, introduced in 2006, may be the great red hope of cold-climate North America. Its pedigree includes Pinot Noir, and its wines have been compared to Austrian reds and wines from the Loire Valley in character. The VitisGen project, with its second iteration launched in 2017, looks set to accelerate the development of new hybrids even further.

Explaining the parentage of modern hybrids is sometimes as complicated as explaining how a bus driver in St Louis stands 37th in line for the principate of Liechtenstein. Hybrids are birthing hybrids, with varieties that have never been graced with proper names proving loving parents to useful varieties like those I’ve just mentioned. Frontenac, another University of Minnesota red-wine grape, has the blood of eight different Vitis species in its veins. Released in 1996, it has also spawned two mutations on its own: Frontenac Gris and Frontenac Blanc.

Grape breeding in the past could have a “throw it against the wall and see what sticks” quality to it, but science, in particular a deeper understanding of the grape’s genome, has allowed breeders to select more carefully and better isolate desirable traits.

“We started out not knowing which genes give the best disease resistance,” Professor Reisch says, “but now the genome has been sequenced multiple times. We not only know which species and which individuals give us really good disease resistance, but we have names for these different genes and know what chromosome they’re on.”

Today, once a cross has been made, DNA from seedlings can be examined even before they’ve been planted to see which one has retained which traits; breeders can move forward more quickly and with confidence rather than planting seedlings and waiting years to see if Junior does indeed have Mom’s beautiful eyes.

Multiple genes for a given trait can also be layered together to make a vine’s disease resistance stronger and more flexible.

“If you just use one single gene for resistance,” Reisch says, “the chances are that, over the lifetime of a new vineyard, the pathogen will mutate and overcome that one gene just like these pathogens mutate and overcome fungicides. Fungicides are often good for only three or four years before the pathogens know a way around them. A mutation in the fungus is not likely to overcome three or four different genes for resistance all at once.”

This process holds true not just for disease resistance but also for aesthetic qualities—flavor characteristics, tannic structure, and so forth. There are, however, a great many more variables at play when determining wine quality. Seedlings that show what Reisch calls “hybrid characteristics,” overly green flavors, or are unworkably acidic can be eliminated from consideration early on, but the aesthetic qualities of a wine are subject to so many variables in the vineyard and cellar that prolonged research is still required on that front.

New hybrid producers and consumers and going native

The more surprising development, for all hybrids, old and new, is that there’s also a new and interested audience. Wine drinkers’ receptivity to new grape varieties has gone further than many would have predicted, breaking down the border between species; what’s good for Nerello is good for Noiret.

As seen with natural wines, wine drinkers—or at least some of them, typically the younger members of that set—are coming to accept and even embrace a wider range of flavors and textures in their wines—in their beverages as a whole, in fact. Many natural wines, as well as orange wines, sour ales, kombucha, and other beverages, offer taste characteristics that were once considered beyond the pale but are now stealing shelf space from more classical, more conservative expressions. In this context, a new generation of wine growers and winemakers is approaching hybrids from an artisanal standpoint that isn’t looking to the tourist with a sweet tooth as their customer.

On the production side, some sophisticated, trained palates with deep roots in traditional fine wine have gotten involved. In 2016, Master Sommelier Pascaline Lepeltier and winemaker Nathan Kendall made the first vintage of Chëpìka, a méthode ancestrale wine, using organically grown Delaware and Catawba grapes from the Finger Lakes. Two years later, they began making a still Catawba as well. Just prior to the advent of Covid, another Master Sommelier, David Keck, left Goodnight Hospitality, the Texas restaurant group he had founded, to return home to northern Vermont and grow wine. The result, Stella XIV, opened its doors this July.

Pascaline Lepeltier MS and Nathan Kendall of Chëpìka in the Finger Lakes, with their méthode ancestrale and their still Catawba wine. Photography courtesy of Chëpìka.

Vermont has placed itself at the forefront of the artisanal hybrid wine scene. In 2015, Eric Asimov of the New York Times devoted his column to La Garagista, Deirdre Heekin’s project there, calling the wines “so soulful and delicious, they challenge crucial assumptions long taken for granted.” Heekins and husband Caleb Barber operate a multi-use farm, and grape growing is just one facet; underlying this arrangement are deeply held concepts about agricultural diversity that fit in squarely with the natural-wine aesthetic.

She works with modern hybrids, mostly from the University of Minnesota’s portfolio—La Crescent, Frontenac, Marquette—as well as a few others such as Brianna, and even some vinifera vines. One may find a certain irony in using grape varieties bred using cutting-edge science for natural-wine production, but while science has improved the efficacy of breeding programs, at their core the techniques used are not significantly dissimilar from the techniques of Munson, Seyve, and Villard. These are emphatically not genetically modified vines.

La Garagista’s first vintage was 2010; preceding them on the Vermont scene by a couple vintages was Shelburne Vineyards, which planted its first hybrids in 1998 and began making wine a decade later. In 2017, they introduced a second line, Iapetus, which adheres to a natural-wine approach and has rapidly expanded to become almost half of their production.

Winemaker Ethan Joseph says Vermont was an early adopter of the Minnesota hybrids, and Marquette in particular is a focus of Shelburne’s production alongside Louise Swenson and La Crescent. Marquette demonstrates the high acidity common to a number of hybrids.

“I’m never going to see a finished Marquette at 8 grams per liter TA,” Joseph says, “so that’s not my benchmark. But if I see it around 10 or 12, I can make a nice, balanced, drinkable dry Marquette. It’s about balance and ripeness of flavors. I use the broader wine world for my concept of what makes a good or exceptional wine, but I have to adjust that framework to the wines we’re making.”

This is normal practice; we don’t expect the same balance in a German Riesling that we do in a Bordeaux.

While at the artisanal wine level much of the talk about hybrid wines in the US is centered on the northeast, the West Coast is not missing out. In 2019, Matt Niess started farming a small Baco Noir vineyard on the Sonoma County coast. “After a couple of months working with these wines,” he says, “I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is what everybody is talking about when they talk about disease resistance.’ No one really understands the magnitude. These vines are on the coast, they see a lot of fog; a river runs right along the vineyard, so there’s lots of humidity. It’s a high mildew area. I never have to spray these vines.”

Niess has since founded North American Press and is partnering with several other growers in different parts of northern California, trialing about 60 different hybrid varieties. He’s also collaborating with The Two Eighty Project, a program in San Francisco dedicated to introducing inner-city residents to community agriculture. In 2020, they took over farming at Alemany Farm, a small property owned by the city just south of the Mission District. The farm is home to a small vineyard with more than 100 heritage hybrid varieties.

Niess has clearly cast a wide net. He is excited to see how some of the TV Munson varieties do; Munson, after all, was working in Texas, and Niess says drought resistance was a trait the breeder was cultivating—a high priority given the current drought in California and the likelihood that water will become an increasingly scarce resource for vineyards. For that matter, controlling vigor is an issue with some of the varieties Niess is working with, but he says dry-farming limits that problem and encourages wine quality.

He is also optimistic about a few of the varieties currently more popular in the northeast, noting, for example, that Catawba’s high acidity and late ripening may turn out to be well suited to warmer climes, but he cautions that some of the Vitis labrusca varieties don’t do well on calcareous soils.

That being the case, some of the French/American hybrids such as Baco Noir or Leon Millot, bred with such soils in mind from Vitis riparia and Vitis rupestria varieties, may ultimately turn out best. “There are also native grapes in California,” he adds. “Let’s make a true California wine with our own, native California grapes. That’s one of my long-term projects.” California is home to two native species, Vitis californica and Vitis girdiana, which Niess hopes either to use directly or to breed into new varieties with that native connection.

Much of Niess’s inspiration, along with that of Heekins and several other producers I spoke with, reaches back to Italy, where local varieties proliferate with abandon.

“These smaller Italian growers who are trying to hold onto their native grapes and hang onto their heritage,” Niess says, “they really spurred my interest. What about here? What about the native grapes of North America?”

One could debate whether hybrids are truly native, but native species are indisputably part of their heritage. In this sense, the spread of artisanal hybrid wines in the US is a logical extension of the locavore movement. I’ve written in these pages previously (see WFW 42, pp.102–07) about the contradiction inherent in many locavore, farm-to-table restaurants that then serve, typically, French or other European wines. Serving local wines made from vinifera varieties is possible in some places in the US but not all, and in either case, grape varieties with a North American ancestry can be argued to be more honestly local than vinifera.

At some levels, that conceptual framework reaches into the social sphere as well, and some advocates of the artisanal hybrid wine scene are conscious of making wine in, and bringing wine to, communities that—whether for reasons of geography, race, identity, or financial status—have been excluded or marginalized in the traditional wine space.

In July, Brooklyn was home to a tasting billed as “ABV: Anything but Vinifera,” with hybrid varieties highlighted alongside ciders, American sakes, and “mixed ferments,” wherein grapes and other fruit come together in a single beverage. Noteworthy was the large number of people of color, both among the attendees and behind the tables, pouring their wines.

“We are diversifying the amount of land and the amount of people we can touch,” announced organizer Jahdé Marley at the opening of the event, “because we are no longer confined to regions that are able to grow vinifera in a hands-off, organic way. We are now bringing so many other people into this community because we are being as local as possible. We are touching the people who are literally in our backyards while thinking in terms of global impact.”

Marley was perhaps speaking about the natural-wine community more than about the world of wine as a whole, but the premise holds true. The natural-wine community is a passionate one and is creating an alternate path of connoisseurship whose impact is already being felt. At the core of the hybrid story, however, is a dialectic waiting to resolve. The artisanal, largely North American scene is asking wine drinkers to broaden their perception of wine in terms of quality, texture, and flavor profile, whereas other parts of the industry, particularly in Europe, are on a quest to meet the need for more organic, sustainable viticulture while changing the consumer’s experience as little as possible. It’s conceivable that both could succeed but fail to find common ground.

Characteristics deemed undesirable in a hybrid wine—in any wine, really—are not inherently so. Research has shown that consumers who taste hybrid varieties early on in their wine-drinking experience do not necessarily “grow out of them,” even as their tastes may mature or become more sophisticated in other ways. Japan is an interesting example, where knowledgeable consumers of course don’t expect such “hybrid characteristics” from their imported Burgundies but also don’t necessarily find them unacceptable in a domestic Delaware or Muscat Bailey A.

Likely, then, as more wine drinkers encounter quality hybrid-grape wines early in their drinking experience, is a new wing on the palace of wine, wherein some aspects of hybrid flavor profiles become more accepted—and perhaps even preferred—by a subset of wine drinkers but not necessarily at the cost of traditional examples.

At the same time, some so-called hybrid characteristics fade from existence as growers and winemakers work with the grapes and learn to handle them, in both vineyard and winery. For each young variety, there are certain to be traits we now ascribe to the grape itself as inherent that will evolve or even disappear and turn out in the end to have been attributable to winemaking or wine growing.

A grape variety with less than 100 years of existence is still in its early days in these regards. “Wine growing is not a short-term endeavor,” Ethan Joseph says.

“Vermont has come a long way since we started in the late ’90s—less than 25 years ago. That’s literally nothing compared to other wine regions of the world and how much history they’ve had, how much time to evaluate not just the variety but the variety on different sites, different soils, vinified different ways. As someone who’s been doing this for 16 years already, I think I will be lucky if, at the end of my career, I feel like I really have an understanding of these varieties and how best to vinify them. But that’s not to say we’re not going to be making great wine and learning a ton along the way.” 

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