Do Hybrid Wine Grapes Have a Place in the Fine Wine Industry?

Hybrid Wine Grapes

Hybrid wine grapes like Vidal Blanc tend to be more collectible than other hybrids because they retain strong aromatics and complex flavors. Photo Credit: Wikimedia CC user CJ

 In the fine wine world, terroir is king. This is perhaps why hybrid wine grapes have earned such a sour reputation among top critics and collectors. Unlike sensitive vinifera grapes, which require very specific weather conditions and soil to thrive, hybrids can grow just about anywhere, and withstand harsh weather conditions. You’ll find them growing during frigid North Dakota springs, and arid, brutally hot Arizona summers. Yet these grapes tend to have one serious flaw that makes them unappealing to most collectors: they often lack complexity and charm.

 
However, the tide could be changing for North American hybrid wine grapes. We’re seeing higher-quality hybrid wines being made by some of the top producers who want to experiment with something new, and the early results are promising. For the first time, wine made from hybrid grapes might actually be worth a space at the dinner table, if not also in your cellar.

What Are Hybrid Wine Grapes?

To make a hybrid grape, you need to cross two or more Vitis (grapevine) species. The three most popular categories of Vitis are vinifera, labrusca, and riparia. If you take a peek at your cellar, chances are the vast majority of your wines come from grapes that fall under the vinifera category. These are grapes that originated in Europe and other regions around the Mediterranean, and include famous, popular varietals like Chardonnay, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon. Even if a vinifera grape is grown outside of Europe, it’s still considered a vinifera. By contrast, labrusca and riparia grapes originated from North America. You might already be familiar with the latter; riparia grape vines can be grafted onto existing vinifera vines in order to make the grapes more phylloxera-resistant. Whenever you cross any of these Vitis species together, you get a hybrid.

Why the Industry Turned Its Back on Hybrids

So, if hybrid wine grapes are more resistant to changes in the weather and to disease, and they’re relatively common in regions like California and Oregon, then why do collectors dislike them? The wine industry’s dislike of hybrids can be traced back to the first European settlers in North America. Early settlers found that native North American grapes, like Concord and Catawba, made wines that tasted completely unfamiliar. Instead of experimenting with native grapes, they brought over cuttings like Merlot and Cabernet from Europe, and New World winemakers have been growing many of these non-native grapes ever since. Centuries later, cheap wine producers in California decided to bulk up their vinifera blends with North American grapes to create hybrids; they thought that crossing vinifera grapes with this hardier species would make their crop easier to grow. But these winemakers had little regard for fine winemaking, and most of their hybrid wines tasted like swill. Today, hybrid wine grapes have become synonymous with cheap table wine.

Harnessing Aromatics and Complexity

Modern hybrid wine grapes are the subject of intense study by universities trying to find the ideal balance between hardiness and delicate flavors. Like vinifera grapes, labrusca and riparia grapes come in a massive variety of flavors; winemakers just have to know which vines combine well with each other, and how to bring out the complexity of these grapes. For instance, on their own, the Trebbiano Toscano and Rayon d’Or grape varietals have a number of flaws; Trebbiano is high-yielding, but thick-skinned, while Rayon is a sweet hybrid of Seibel that tends to ripen a little too quickly. Combined, these grapes form a new hybrid, Vidal Blanc. The resulting Vidal Blanc hybrid is extremely hardy because of its thick skin, yet it’s also very sweet and delicate tasting, making it perfect for the production of icewine. In theory, we could do the same for labrusca/vinifera hybrids that we have done for Vidal Blanc, tailoring wine grapes so that they’re perfectly adapted to their unique terroirs.

How to Invest in These Wines

When investing in vintages made from hybrid wine grapes, the most important tip to remember is that terroir still matters. Although hybrids are usually more robust than their vinifera peers, that doesn’t mean that you can grow any hybrid grape anywhere in the country. Some of the best hybrid wines will come from cooler regions, since these are areas where it is much harder to grow traditional vinifera grapes–cool weather is where hybrids truly shine. To practice identifying high-quality hybrid regions, I recommend tasting vinifera and hybrid labrusca or riparia varietals side-by-side:

  • Oregon Hybrids: Try Baco Noir from Girardet Winery alongside Pinot Noir from Beaux Freres. You’ll find that they both have light, Burgundian qualities, but the hybrid Baco will taste just a bit more intense and concentrated.
  • East Coast Hybrids: Try Hudson-Chatham Winery Seyval Blanc alongside Millbrook Chardonnay or Raveneau Chablis Les Clos. The hybrid Seyval will likely taste similar to the white Burgundy, but should be lighter and more mineral-heavy than either Chardonnay.

Another tip is that the best producers will use hybrids sparingly in an effort to improve their existing wines, rather than to bulk up their yields. I find that the best hybrid vintages are made in extremely small batches (usually fewer than 1,000 barrels) because this is a sign that the winemaker is focused on crafting a small number of high-quality bottles, rather than gallons and gallons of barely drinkable table wine. You’ll also want to pay close attention to how long the wine was exposed to grape skin during the pressing process. Many hybrid grapes have thicker skins than vinifera varietals, which is what makes them so resistant to cold and disease. However, these skins can impart a bitter flavor if they’re exposed to the juice for too long. In general, look for hybrids that are made with a light hand (in the style of Pinot Noir), rather than a heavy hand (in the style of Syrah).

Although hybrid wines still aren’t as valuable on the secondary market as vinifera wines, they have potential for your cellar, especially if you’re more interested in drinking than resale. The highest-quality vintages age beautifully, and many are receiving praise from critics for their delicate, complex flavors. If you’re tired of drinking the same variations on Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, investing in hybrid wines could open up your palate to new experiences, and might even change your opinion about hybrids in the future.

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