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What Are Grape Hybrids?

Erin O'Reilly - Certified Specialist of Wine

Vinifera vines

What you generally think of as standard wine grape varieties, your Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Pinot Grigio, all come from the same grape species: Vitis vinifera, commonly referred to as simply vinifera. But the world’s full of other grape species, and researchers have spent lifetimes trying to perfect new wine grapes with hybrid grape vines. Here’s a quick rundown on hybrid grapes.

What’s So Special About Vinifera?

Vinifera earned her fame thanks to her consistent ability to make deeply complex, age worthy wines. Out in the wild, vinifera vines have cross pollinated for millennia. A grape cross happens within the same species. The classic example is Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. Both vinifera, they experienced a chance crossing about 400 years ago in France and produced their child Cabernet Sauvignon.

Cross grape varieties give us the bountiful rainbow of well-known wines we have today.

But other grape species grow around the world, too.

The Vikings referred to coastal North America as Vineland in reference to the wild grapevines growing throughout the region, but the fruit’s ability to make great wines has fallen somewhat short. Perhaps you’ve had the pleasure of enjoying a Concord wine made from Concord grapes (Vitis labrusca). While Concord makes delicious jelly, it’s not a complex wine by any objective measure.

These other species offer something else: genetic material.

Hybrid grapes take the DNA from two different grape species to create a new grape variety. Viticulturalists intentionally seek to replicate some unique quality from both parents. Vinifera gives us rich aromatics and flavor; other species may provide cold hardiness or disease resistance.

Vidal Blanc grapes

What is a hybrid wine?

If you live in a marginal growing region, you’ve likely come across hybrid wines from local producers. Famous examples of hybrid grape varieties include Seyval Blanc, Vidal Blanc, and Frontenac. Frontenac has a complicated parentage matrix of crossings and hybrids developed by the University of Minnesota. This black grape can withstand extreme temperatures down to -30°F and it enjoys robust disease resistance to craft rich hybrid red wines with notes of black currant, plum, and chocolate.

Most recently, Dr. Andy Walker of UC Davis finished extensive research to develop new hybrid grapes resistant to Pierce’s disease, a highly lethal bacteria spreading through vineyards in California. You may soon find wines carrying the varietal labels of Paseante Noir, Ambulo Blanc, and Caminante Blanc.

Public opinion can be fickle with hybrid wine.

Purchasing wine is already an intimidating process because you don’t know exactly what your wine is going to taste like until you’ve tried it. Varietal labeling helps you select wines that you’re familiar with. You generally know what Chardonnay tastes like. One bottle of Chardonnay will taste more or less like other Chardonnays with slight differences around the edges.

With wines made from hybrid grapes, you’re getting a wine that’s not mainstream.

If you have an adventurous spirit, seek out these wines and give them a try. Take comfort in the fact that the researchers who spent their lifetimes developing these hybrid wine grapes were striving to recreate refined vinifera-style wines.

Approach hybrid wine with an open mind, and you’ll likely be pleasantly surprised.

Erin O'Reilly Author Bio Image Author Bio: Erin O’Reilly, Certified Specialist of Wine, is a wine writer and educator. She pens her work from Monterey wine country where she raises a glass to the growers and producers crafting wines that transcend time.