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Sep 27, 2022

There are many parts of European and American cultures that have intermingled, some quite successfully, but the jury is still out on whether the vitis vinifera and the American vitis species have created something truly special and lasting. In this show, we break down European-American grapevine hybrids – what they are, why they are more important to the conversation today, their history, how they are made and what some of the more popular and more successful grapes are. We wrap with a conversation of the challenges these grapes face and I give my view on what I think the role of hybrids will be in the future. 


Photo (c) Cornell College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

Here are the show notes:

What are hybrids?

For wine purposes, hybrids are grapes created by crossing two or more vitis species – the European species of grapevine, Vitis vinifera, with any number of native North American grapes. The goal of hybrids is to select for specific, superior traits in each of the grapes to create something that will yield a great wine that will survive in challenging vineyard conditions. They were specifically created in the 1860s and 1870s to fight the phylloxera epidemic (vine killing root louse that nearly destroyed Europe’s vineyards). French researchers created more than 500 different plants in the 1860s and research continued in the early 1900s. In the end, the preferred solution was using American roots with Vitis vinifera grafts, but the hybrids were quite popular for a few decades. 

Photo (c) Cornell College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

Today, development of hybrids is still quite active at the University of Minnesota and at Cornell University in New York. Hybrdis are planted all over the US East Coast, Midwest, and the Southern part of the country as well.

Some common American Vitis species with which researchers have crossed Vitis vinifera are: 

  • Vitis labrusca: The grape shows strawberry notes, but it can be challenging because it has a strong musk flavor and aroma that doesn’t work well for most wine drinkers
  • Vitis riparia: The grape has more herbal or blackcurrant and is often more subtle than labrusca
  • Others like Vitis rupestris, Vitis amurensis from China, or Vitis rotundifolia (muscadine grapes) can be used too

Why are we talking about hybrids?

For a long time, I have resisted doing a show on hybrids. They are not very popular, they are not considered fine wine, and I personally don’t enjoy many of them (with big exceptions for the whites that make ice wine, in particular). But in recent years, these grapes have been making more of a mark in the US and the UK and with the rise of climate change, I think these grapes will have a bigger role to play. In addition, people want to make wine and they want to grow things successfully in many different climates. Often, they try to make wines out of Vitis vinifera and fail because of their climate, local diseases and pests, and a bad fit with the European species. I would rather see better wines made from unknown grapes, than people trying to make a product that won’t work.

The vine matter for hybrids has improved greatly and given their hardiness -- hybrids made from Vitis labrusca and Vitis riparia can grow anywhere - -and our growing problems with climate change, it is time to give these another look. Researchers trying to offset warming temperatures, new threats like wildfires, drought, and humidity will need to look at hybrids rather than more powerful fungicides and sprays whose financial and environmental costs are becoming untenable. 

The grapes...

Red Varieties

Chambourcin: Considered one of the best of French-American hybrids, it is a teinturier variety, a red with both dark skin and pulp. It is a dark colored, highly tannic red with dark raspberry, black plum, and cherry notes. It does well with oak aging and is sometimes made in an off-dry style. It is popular in: Ontario (Canada), Missouri, Pennsylvania, Michigan, North Carolina, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, New York and New Jersey.

Photo (c) Cornell College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

Maréchal Foch: Can be a nice spicy wine with a dark berry note and light body. It is grown in the US Midwest and widely in Canada.

Norton (Cynthiana):  Can create wines that are full bodied, with red berry and spice notes, and strong tannin and acidity. It is grown in the Midwestern U.S., and Mid-Atlantic states, especially Virigina. 

Baco Noir: Created by François Baco in France during the phylloxera epidemic, the wine from Baco noir can show cherry, herbal notes with high acidity, and lower tannin. You can find it in Canada, New York, Oregon, and Nova Scotia, as well as in Gascony, France to make Armagnac 

Chancellor:  Is known to have a very dark color with prune, raisin, plum, dried fig, and baked apple notes. It has a medium body with medium acidity and some strong tannin. It can be used alone or in blends and is found in cooler regions of Canada and the U.S. (especially in the Finger Lakes) and Michigan.

Frontenac:  Was released by the University of Minnesota in 1996. It is reportedly dark in color with cherry, perfumey, candied notes, high acidity and high alcohol. It can survive in temperatures as low as -30˚ F, and is found in Minnesota, and the northeastern part of the U.S. and all over Canada.

White Wine Varieties

Vidal Blanc: Potentially the top white hybrid, Vidal is a cross of Ugni Blanc and the hybrid variety, Rayon d’Or. It can be very acidic, and taste and smell like grapefruit, or be richer with pineapple and white flower notes. It is made in off-dry to dry styles, but the grape shines in ice wine in Ontario, Canada and the Finger Lakes, New York. 

Seyval Blanc: An acidic white grape with citrus, melon, peach, grass notes and a very light body, it often benefits from malolactic and/or barrel fermentation and barrel aging. It can be found in Canada, Englan, and in the US in the Finger Lakes and Midwest.

Chardonel: Is a cross of Seyval Blanc x Chardonnay created for its cold hardiness. It has potential as a base for sparkling wine or barrel aged, dry whites in the future. It is grown in Michigan and Arkansas in the US. 

Traminette:  Is a cross: Gewürztraminer x French-American hybrid, Joannes Seyve 23.416. It shows flowers and spice from Gewürztraminer and when allowed the proper amount of skin contact, it can be a refreshing white with good acidity. It is usually an off dry wine from the East Coast and Midwest of the US.

Vignoles:  Is generally an off-dry wine or dessert wine (late harvest) due to its very high acidity, high sugar and susceptibility to botrytis, which can make some very interesting sweet wines. It is found in the Finger Lakes and other parts of eastern North America. 

We end with a discussion of the challenges for hybrids:

  1. Tannins, acidity, and the flavors are very different from Vitis vinifera (can be musky), so wine drinkers who have a lot of experience with European wines find the flavors unappealing. 
  2. Hybrids that grow well in test vineyards in one part of the country may not work well in other parts of the country, even with similar climates.
  3. A hybrid could be excellent in acidity, but the flavors may not work – where it succeeds in one area, it may fail in another
  4. They aren’t all better – they still have issues and may not be that much better than the grafted clones of other Vitis vinifera grapes that are easier to sell and sometimes even to manage in the vineyard. They are not a panacea to climate change


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For more information/Sources:

Are Hybrid Grapes the Future of Wine?, Smithsonian Magazine

A Beginner’s Guide to Hybrid Grapes,Wine Enthusiast

The Future of Winemaking Is Hybrid, Wine Industry Advisor

French-American and Other Interspecific Varieties, Cornell University

Here come the Hybrids, The Grapevine Magazine

The Grape Growers Handbook, Ted Goldammer

The Rise and Not Quite Fall of Hybrid Grapes,