Hybrid grapes and why they matter for the future

Hybrid grapes and why they matter for the future

Let's talk about a topic we think needs more attention towards the future, hybrids. Simply put, a crossing between different grape varieties selected for certain qualities.

Hybrid grape varieties have been in use for a while now, nowadays mostly in the lesser known grape / wine producing countries of the world: The Netherlands, Belgium, Poland, Scandinavia, England, Japan and many states within the U.S. What few people know is that they used to be planted en masse in the big wine producing countries as well, before the second world war tens of thousands of hectares in France were planted with these grapes, battling the earlier outbreak of phylloxera.

In defense of tradition these grapes were later banned by the French government, first nudging people by paying them to replant the traditional French varieties, later fining people that worked with hybrids and even threatening with jail time. Almost nothing is left in France, but hybrids are making a comeback. We'll get to why later. First, what makes a grape variety a hybrid?

Hybrids are created by crossing grape varieties, often coming from different plant families. All grape varieties that you would be able to name are Vitis Vinifera. This originally European family of grapes contains thousands of varieties such as Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Primitivo and Riesling. However, there are grape families growing all over our planet. In total there are 78 other grape families as well, such as Vitis Labrusca, Vitis Riparia andVitis Bellula. Out of these, almost no other is suited to make wine out of. The sugar content is too low or the acidity to high, some taste weird or outright nasty. However, they often do possess other qualities; they can be resistant to extreme cold or to certain fungi, might be slower growers or good at handling drought.

taking pollen from the grape's tiny flowers

Hybrids are born when you cross different varieties, sometimes from different plant families. Most common is crossing Vitis Vinifera with Vitis Labrusca or Riparia. Cross-pollinating a grape variety such as Pinot Noir with a Vitis Labrusca resulted in Marquette, a hybrid grape often growing in the North-East of the United States and capable of making great (natural) wines, such as by the awesome Wild Arc Farm that we know from New York. Closer to home, most Dutch wineries also work with hybrid grape varieties such as Solaris, Rondo, Muscaris, Johanniter and Cabernet Cortis. The cross-pollination is done by fertilizing the flower of one grape with the pollen of another and then planting the seed that later comes out of that grape.

So why do they matter? Well, those varieties have almost all been crossed to become more fungus-resistant, one of the main worries for grape growers working exclusively with Vitis Vinifera grapes, especially in colder and wetter climates like ours. Some of these hybrids are sometimes so fungus-resistant that they never have to be sprayed at all! That's a huge saving in man hours, fuel use (CO2) and creates vineyards that become healthier each year.

With spraying we're talking about both chemical fungicides but also the organic alternative of spraying copper and sulfur. For the immediate environment organic farming is way better, however for the worldwide climate organic farming often produces a lot more CO2, mainly because for every chemical spray organic viticulturists sometimes have to spray 2 to 3 times with the organic alternative. Meaning that some organic producers make a lot more hours on their tractors and therefore using more diesel than the conventional counterparts. In other wine areas, such as Germany's Mosel, vineyards are even sprayed by helicopters. And there too, helicopters fitted with organic sprays have to be employed way more often. The pressure on organic viticulture is on.

a fuel guzzling helicopter spraying vineyards in the Mosel

We still stand completely behind organic farming because of the huge benefits for the immediate environment and (when done right) allowing the soil to live in the vineyards and therefore sequestering much carbon again. However, we are very excited about the possibilities of hybrid grape varieties and the huge wins they could offer to winemakers and the planet. Not (or barely) having to spray copper and sulfur is a huge win on any front and slowly but steadily more hybrids are planted all over the world. We helped Stein in the Mosel plant Souvignier Gris on a shaded plot of Riesling, causing fungal issues for the Vitis Vinifera plants and Lilian Bauchet is making terrific wines from hybrids in Beaujolais, one of France's most heavily sprayed areas.

Most winemakers hate the job of spraying, whether it's chemical or organic sprays, and on a recent visit to Wijndomein de Oude Waalstroom or a less recent visit to Dassemus, both in the Netherlands, we were stunned to hear they haven't sprayed anything for over a decade. All sounds great, so you'd think; what are we waiting for, why are not many more farmers switching to hybrid grapes?

One big problem: their reputation. Even we notice in our shops that usage of the word hybrid doesn't land well with many of our customers. “Aren't those weird tasting?” “Aren't hybrids wines disgusting?” “I'd rather have a real wine, I'm not a fan of hybrids” are remarks we've heard before. And that's a shame. Because honestly, for a lot of wines we sell and for the knowledge level in wine of many customers, we don't think you'd necessarily taste a difference. Whether you're buying a Loire Valley wine from an obscure Vitis Vinifera grape such as Grolleau or a hybrid you've never heard of, such as Cabernet Cortis, would it make that big a difference? We'd say: in many cases not. One big problem is misinformation, many people copy what they've heard from others without tasting the sublime wines that these vines can create.

Another problem is tradition, there are no appellations for hybrid grapes. A winemaker couldn't label his wine as Sancerre if it's not made from Sauvignon Blanc, the same goes for a Chianti that doesn't contain Sangiovese or a Rioja with no Tempranillo. That means a huge cut in the price for the winemakers, would they be so crazy. Not many wineries have the luxury to do so.

Sounds grim, but we're very optimistic because one new trend could speed up a transition. That trend is natural wine and it's many, many fans around the world. Why? Because many natural winemakers are already labeling their wines under the lowest possible appellation, such as Vin de France, Vino di Italia, Landwein etc. Some by choice, to avoid the heavy restrictions from the appellation boards, some are forced because their wines aren't considered true representation of its place.

With the trend of winemakers becoming more famous than their local appellation and wines selling by their labels over their designation of place, the door has been opened to start experimenting with these hybrid grapes varieties, also known as PIWI's in Germany. We also see many customers coming into our stores looking for a fun and juicy red or an orange wine not caring so much (or at all) about the grape variety or even the country of origin. These customers love a wine for its expression, not for how much it's similar to other wines from the region. We applaud that, because it gives winemakers more tools to work with and more options to express their vision and soils. All that while saving our world's vineyards from the thousands of tons of pesticides, fungicides or organic copper and sulfur sprays now landing on the soils. We believe hybrids have a future and are excited for it but also don't see this as a black and white discussion.

We too love our (organic and wild fermented) Chablis made from the quintessential Chardonnay grape or a delicious Beaujolais wine from Gamay and would never advocate to en masse start pulling out those vines. But we would like to see more diversity in vineyards and winemakers maybe planting every third row with a hybrid grape, maybe one that's later flowering as well, as to protect the winemaker from the financial strain of a late spring frost. While at the same time those rows could also work as a barrier, protecting vines from diseases jumping from one to the next. We can't wait to taste those wines and to discover whether these hybrid grape can show their sense of place as well as the traditional ones, or maybe even better!

We are working on getting more hybrid wines in our store and invite you to come in and try an orange wine from Souvignier Gris, a rose from Rondo or even an oaked white wine from a blend of Solaris and Bianco, it's worth the try.