Park your hybrid and instead drink a hybrid!
Today’s hybrids are for drinking, not just driving. No longer are hybrid grapes taking a back seat to the ubiquitous Vinis Vinifera grapes. These ignored hybrid grapes are delivering mouth excitement around the world. And, many of the best are right here in the states.
Just look at the exotic beauty of a few of their names for starters: Baco Noir, Isabella, St. Croix, Blanc du Bois, La Crescent – so, if they’re so hot why haven’t you heard of these before? Well, they’ve been placed at the back of the class, never called upon and left known only to the cognoscenti. But, now I’m here to crack that door open.
How did hybrid grapes manage to stay off the radar? Let’s take a time machine trip back into the 19th Century to begin. It all starts in the mid-1800s with a particularly ravaging louse known as phylloxera. This hungry insect, whose origin was here in the U.S., spread like the plague and had its way gnawing at the roots of the Vinis Vinifera vineyards around the world. Essentially, it decimated the vineyards of Europe. This wipeout caused a migration of farmers, winemakers and others who had lost their economic footing (sound familiar?) and were forced to move to new territories, including the U.S.
However, the world wanted to continue to drink wine. What to do? Scientists and researchers, professional and amateur. went to work to figure out solutions. By the early 20th Century (1900s), a discovery was made. By crossing two or more different grape species together in an effort to combat the insect, such as Vitis vinifera (the native European species) and Vitis labrusca (the native American species), hybrid grapes were created.
By crossing the phylloxera-resistant Vitis labrusca with the Vitis vinifera they created a hybrid grape that was impervious to phylloxera, fungus and mold diseases. Eureka!
In the early 1900s these new hybrid grapes were immediately embraced by growers in the cold and clammy Northeast and Midwest as well as the hot and damp southern states. Meanwhile, in Europe, although they were given a try, it was short-lived. Perhaps it’s that these grapes weren’t bougie enough, or more likely the wines just didn’t taste like their Daddy’s wine and therefore it was spat out. France was particularly offended by the American upstarts and banned them for classified wines in the early 1930s, and still does. The exception is Baco Blanc which is used in Armagnac distillation. In Austria, the grapes are growing but used only in the lowest classification of wines. Tsk. Tsk.
These hybrids have a different aroma and flavor profile to the grapes we’re used to sniffing and swirling. Some are referred to as “foxy” or “musky” which can be off-putting at first sniff. Others are beautifully floral or like wild berries on the nose. Often their acidity is a bit higher and tannins lighter than the European vinifera we favor. Yet today, these hybrids have developed a cult following of their own.
Because they’re so well-suited to their growing areas, the hybrid grapes are considered more “green” in terms of environmental practices than their European counterparts.
Hybrid grape wines from New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont, New Mexico, Texas, and even California are showing up in wine bars and on tasting menus. C’mon, this is a moment where we are curious about strange, new and experimental things!
Give some love and ask for these wines – be part of the Hybrid movement in this New Decade of the 20s and be free of FOMO.
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Contributor: Stacie Hunt, Certified Silver Pin Sommelier/AIS; Vice President National Association of Wine Retailers; International Wine Judge, Author, Spokesperson, and Educator.