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marquette grapesThis article by Jamie Goode on the need for the wine community to embrace hybrid grape varietals raises an important set of issues. Most of the wines we drink are made from the grape species Vitis vinifera. But these varietals cannot survive cold winter temperatures and they are subject to a variety of diseases such as downy mildew and powdery mildew which require heavy applications of fungicides. As Jamie points out, these fungicides are not sustainable.  Copper sulfate is especially harmful to the long-term health of the soil.

One solution is to grow hybrid grape varieties made by crossing of European Vitis vinifera vines, American Vitis labrusca and Vitis riparia grapes. These hybrids not only survive cold winters but are resistant to mildew, requiring significantly fewer applications of chemicals throughout the growing season. Most Californians have never tasted these hybrids and they have been banned from many European appellations because they were deemed inferior to vinifera. Yet they are common throughout the Midwest and East Coast.

The challenge is taste. For those of us accustomed to the flavors and structure of vinifera varieties, these hybrids taste odd to say the least. I’ve tasted my share of Marquette, Norton, Frontenac, Chambourcin, Traminette, La Crescent and many others. Some were quite good; others quite dreadful. As with all winemaking its a matter of matching varietal, location and wine making technique. As everyday drinking wines most have potential (although I think Frontenac Red has a future only as a port-style wine). Can these wines reach the heights of the very best vinifera? Will we see a 100 point Marquette in the the near future? It’s hard to say in part because it’s a matter of adjusting our taste sensibilities to include flavors that don’t quite fit our conventional categories.

The challenge then is not all on the grape growers, viticulturalists, and winemakers. It’s on those of us who taste seriously as well. We at least need to be open-minded about hybrids and adjust our concepts of what wines should taste like. Tasting the new is always a challenge but it is how we make progress.

As Jamie concludes:

“It may take some time for the wine world to open its mind to resistant varieties, but the current situation isn’t sustainable. Our longtime addiction to Vitis vinifera grapes — used in the vast majority of today’s wines — with its attendant spray regimes, is simply no longer justifiable. It’s time to recognize the progress made by the grape breeders, and to get behind these new resistant varieties.”