I lived long ago in budding winegrowing regions dependent on hybrid grapes, like New York’s Finger Lakes in the 1980s and Nova Scotia in the early 2000s, and also in areas not receptive to hybrids, but still, at the time, deemed very iffy for producing wine, like Oregon’s Willamette Valley in the 1970s. The seeming difference was that the former regions were considered climatologically impossible for European wine grape production, while the latter truly sat in prime Vitis vinifera territory, with adequate warmth and fewer limiting factors, like mildew or winter kill, but at the time they seemed totally marginal. Hybrid grapes helped establish some wine appellations like New York and Nova Scotia, leading ultimately to these areas making wine history withoutsticking resolutely with hybrids.
What is a Hybrid Wine Grape and What’s Hybrid’s History?
First, let’s define what a hybrid wine grape is and how that differs from, say, a cross. Historically, this goes back to advances in viticulture and the 19th century phylloxera epidemic. Phylloxera is a root louse, a parasite, native to North America. It kills vines. When Europeans discovered grape vines in the Americas, they saw great potential: a plethora of new grape varieties! New wines! A good example is the Concord grape, a cultivar derived from the American grape species Vitis labrusca. The problem was that these grape plants were actually distinct species from the European wine grape plant, Vitis vinifera. Unknowingly, they transported the root louse to Europe when they brought native North American vines back with them. They also turned out to not be great for wine making because of what’s often called a ”foxy” flavor in the resulting wine, especially that from labrusca.
These sneaky parasites found their way into French vineyards and ultimately spread to all wine growing regions, including Spain, Italy, and yes, even California (the louse was native to the East Coast). Almost everywhere, vinifera on its own roots could no longer be profitably cultivated. The solution to the phylloxera epidemic proved to be grafting the roots of North American species, which resisted the louse owing to thousands of years of evolution, onto vinifera vines, which had never evolved to resist this parasite. The roots were safe from the louse and the vine that grew above the graft produced the desired European grapes! Problem solved, somewhat (Napa Valley had to replant in the 1980s and 90s because the commonly-used American rootstock proved non-resistant to phylloxera). Abundant research and plant breeding went into identifying or creating, through crosses, the best non-vinifera rootstocks for winegrowing.
Viticultural scientists became experts in North American grape species and breeding, including crossing. A cross is not a hybrid. A cross is when two varieties from the same species are bred, producing a new grape variety of the same species, which, if it’s successful and genetically stable, can be reproduced through cuttings or other reproduction methods. Take, for example, Pinotage, which was created in the 1920s in South Africa from crossing Pinot Noir and Cinsault.
Inter-specific breeding can produce hybrids. In the early 20th century hybrids drew interest as well, in fact, because they can be another solution to phylloxera as well as other limiting factors like cold tolerance or mildew resistance. This is when two distinct vine species, Vitis vinifera and a North American species, like Vitis labrusca, are bred together producing a completely new type of wine grape plant that has phenotypic characteristics from both parents. The most successful early examples were French-American hybrids. Cornell University notes:
In the development of the French-American hybrids, the use of V. labrusca was avoided so as not to impart its strong flavor to the new selections. Many other wild American species were used, especially V. aestivalis lincecumii (the Post Oak Grape), V. rupestris (the Sand Grape) and V. riparia (the Riverbank Grape). The flavors of the French-American group are quite variable but much more subtle than the flavors of many varieties derived from V. labrusca.
Do Hybrid Grapes Provide Benefits in Winegrowing?
In the 1970s, I remember winegrowing in Oregon (and Washington) remained a question, with many critics and naysayers. That’s hard to imagine now as both are celebrated wine states, famous for wines made from European grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, and Merlot. But adventurous Oregon and Washington winegrowers didn’t have to use hybrids. At first, they just used grafted vines and appropriate cool-climate varieties like Pinot Gris, Riesling, and Pinot Noir. The climate and the whole terroir in these regions proved the naysayers wrong, and great wines were produced using Vitis vinifera despite the relative lack of sunshine and harsh winters (compared to California).
In areas like the Finger Lakes, it was a different story. This region of Upstate New York had long produced wine, including sparkling wines, despite its continental climate, but from American grape varieties like Concord. Scientists, including prominently from my alma mater Cornell University, became interested in hybrids for such marginal climates—the area has very cold (vinifera-killing) winters and is cool overall in summer, so as late as the 1960s most European great varieties were seen as impossible to grow there. Viticulturalists thought the answer to improving wine quality lay in growing hybrids. So, they produced a bunch of them.
When I lived in Ithaca and Trumansburg, New York, in the 1980s, wines made from hybrid grapes dominated the local wine industry. The issue with wine made from hybrids was the flavor profile of the grapes, which although producing quaffable wines, were not what most wine drinkers accustomed to European varieties would shout about, even if they weren’t “foxy.” I remember refreshing white wines from Cayuga, a French-American hybrid originally hybridized by Cornell specifically for growing in the Finger Lakes region. Change occurred when an Eastern European scientist working for Cornell became convinced that cool-climate Vitis vinifera varieties could be grown there, especially on the banks of the Finger Lakes, where the huge volume of water in these very deep lakes provided suitable, moderated microclimates. His name was Dr. Konstantin Frank, and he was right! Today, the Finger Lakes is famed for its Rieslings and Gewurztraminers, but also grows Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, and even Pinot Noir. So, it turned out to be similar to the winegrowing history in Oregon. The naysayers were wrong again.
Next, when I lived in Nova Scotia, Canada, in the early 2000s, aspiring winemakers turned to hybrids to survive the cool summer climate and harsh winters. The same was true in Ontario, which produces world-famous ice-wine from Vidal, a hybrid grape. Growing vinifera was considered impossible. Today, however, some estate wineries are producing fabulous wines from European grapes, such as Lightfoot and Wolfville Vineyards. There’s also a budding sparkling wine industry there. Again, the naysayers were proved wrong. Although most wineries still use hybrids in Nova Scotia (and Quebec), there’s a trend toward European grape production of very high quality wines.
Hybrids and the Future of Wine
This little story brings me to a few conclusions. First, the history of Oregon, the Finger Lakes, and Nova Scotia from the 1960s to today shows that Vitis vinifera, grafted onto the correct American rootstock, will flourish in regions that previous generations thought were marginal at best owing to the prevailing climate. Hybrids were important, in two of those locations, to propel winegrowing as a viable endeavor.
With today’s rapid climate change, wine scientists are again looking to hybrids for potential solutions, but this time to produce grape plants able to flourish and produce good wine in what are newly becoming marginal areas, but were previously prime terroirs, usually because of too much heat, changes to spring and fall weather, and too little water. The history of places I have been privileged to live in shows, however, that seemingly-marginal areas can become, over time, superb for winegrowing. The naysayers have been proven wrong time and again. The flavor profile of most hybrids also remains an important issue, although educating consumers about these wines could help.
Overall, I believe the most-viable future lies in sticking with Vitis vinifera, including exploring the use of native varieties that were uprooted from their native lands in the modern era to make way for popular varieties (like Cabernet Sauvignon in Bordeaux and Tempranillo in Spain). A key word here is “appropriate.” Appropriate technology transfer, including appropriate varietal selection, is a foundation of sustainable viticulture. Torres Family Wines’ effort in hot, arid Spain is a great example of such a program. Such varieties are often well adapted to local climes, to drought, and to more heat. Crosses of vinifera, too, hold potential, as with South Africa’s Pinotage. Scientific research is essential.
The moral is that marginal winegrowing areas have popped up again and again in wine history. They proved to be successful, with determination. Climate change is quickly producing marginal conditions in what were previously prime viticultural regions. One answer is hybrids. Another is appropriate varietal selection for the new climate (though if it keeps changing, that will be a continuing problem). Still another is moving production of the same popular varieties to new areas, with cooler climates under climate change, but that leaves the specter of famous terroirs being abandoned. Entire wine regions have disappeared in the past because of pressure from Mother Nature combined with human intervention. The naysayers regarding vinifera cultivation in Nova Scotia, the Finger Lakes, and Oregon were wrong. The naysayers about climate change and its vinous consequences probably are too.
Charlie Leary earned his PhD in history at Cornell University. He has served as a wine director for restaurants in New Orleans, southern France, Canada, Costa Rica and Panama since 1995. He is a certified Spanish Wine Specialist, Cava Educator and Expert and has studied wine through Washington State University, the Wine Scholar Guild, California Wine Institute, and the Rioja Academy. Charlie is a member of the Circle of Wine Writers.