Will Hybrids Be the Future of Wine?

hybrid grapesMost of the quality wine produced in the major wine regions of the world use grapes from the species vitis vinifera. Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Malbec are varieties of vitis vinifera.  When we think about the flavors, aromas, and mouthfeel of wine, it’s vitis vinifera that provides the standard model. It tastes good and grows well in temperate regions, especially where rainfall and humidity are moderate during summer and early fall and where winter temperatures are moderated by nearby bodies of water.

The problem is that vitis vinifera is subject to disease pressure when temperatures and humidity get too high, it’s not drought tolerant, and the vines die in deep winter freezes.The first two problems, high temperatures and drought, are exacerbated by climate change. The third problem, winter kill, prevents vinifera from being successfully grown in cooler parts of the world where climate change is less of an immediate threat.

Thus, climate change is a threat to vitis vinifera and what we think of as wine.

This article by Jahdé Marley  in Wine Enthusiast explains why hybrid grape varieties might be a solution.

Hybrid grapes were created by crossing vitis vinifera with American species vitis labrusca or vitis riparia which were cultivated in response to the phylloxera infestation in the late 19th Century. Many of these hybrids turned out to be insect and disease resistant as well as cold hardy, surviving even the bitterly cold winters in states such as Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Marley covers several programs in the U.S. that are researching varieties such as Baco Noir, Traminette, Catawba, La Crosse, Marechal Foch, Marquette, St. Pepin, and La Crescent among others. All of these grapes are routinely grown in the Midwest and East Coast but even California winemakers and viticulturists are showing interest in them, especially if they are drought tolerant. The article does a good job of summarizing the benefits of these varietals as a hedge against climate change.

But what struck me about the article was something left out. How do they taste?

I spent several years traveling through wine regions in the U.S. and I’ve had my share of wines made from hybrid varietals. They are interesting, distinctive, and expand the range of what wine can be. They enable wine to be made in places that can’t reliably grow vinifera thus opening up new terroirs.

But in general they lack the complexity, subtlety and refinement of the best wines made from vinifera. I’ve had many good wines made from hybrids, but no great wines.

Is that because they are typically grown in regions that aren’t ideal for growing grapes? Perhaps. Given their benefits in confronting climate change it’s worth experimenting with hybrids on the West Coast. Perhaps all they need in order to show well is some time and attention under California’s sunny skies. Given the improvements we’ve made in viticulture and winemaking over the last several decades, we may discover ways of growing and making wine from hybrids that put them on a level with vinifera.

We won’t know until we try, but there is reason to be skeptical. Before winemakers commit to replacing vinifera with hybrids they need to pass some taste tests.

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