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Let's Hear It for Hybrids
By Linda Murphy
May 22, 2012
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Let’s hear it for hybrids.

I don’t mean fuel-efficient Priuses, but rather the wine grapes with names like Brianna, Marquette, Frontenac and Valvin Muscat, which are unfamiliar to the vast majority of wine drinkers -- and winemakers -- on the West Coast, yet are the lifeblood of grapegrowers and winemakers east of the Rocky Mountains. 

In America’s heartland -- the Midwest and Great Lakes regions -- and in parts of the Northeast and Southeast, hybrid grape varieties not only let vintners produce wine in climates too cold or too humid for classic European vinifera varieties such as Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, but also give them an opportunity to make excellent wines.  Trust me.

Hybrids are developed by plant breeders who cross two or more varieties to create a new, improved vine variety and resulting wine grape, with the goal being to retain the positive traits of the types being used, and cull out the negatives.  It can take years of crossing and re-crossing to come up with a hybrid that solves a particular problem (susceptibility to a certain disease, for example), and also has the potential to produce quality wine.

French-American hybrids have been available to U.S. winemakers for years -- Chambourcin, Marechal Foch, Seyval Blanc, Vidal Blanc and Vignoles are among the most common -- and have made winegrowing possible in regions where vinifera doesn’t enjoy a long enough warm season to ripen grapes, or where muggy summers encourage fungal disease in grape clusters too delicate to combat it.  Vinifera planted in the wrong place can spell disaster for a grower and winemaker, yet the French-American breeds give them a fighting chance.

Native varieties discovered by America’s first settlers in the East and South have, over centuries, adapted to their environments and can survive bitter cold and/or humidity.  Although Norton (also known as Cynthiana) is an indigenous grape capable of producing vinifera-style wines, particularly in Missouri and Virginia, few other natives come close to mimicking European-varietal wines.  Most (Concord, Isabella, Niagara, Muscadine, etc.) are fermented into wines that have a musky, “foxy” aroma and a very sweet flavor -- an acquired taste for some and a total turnoff for others.
In the past, wine producers in regions affected by winter deep freezes, injurious frosts in spring and fall, and fungal diseases triggered by humidity, had three choices, and planting vinifera was not one of them.  They could grow French-American hybrid grapes, which offered good resistance to vine disease, yet struggled in harsh winter conditions; produce wines made from fruits other than grapes (apples, cherries, raspberries, cranberries, etc.); and/or purchase grapes and/or juice from other states.

French-American hybrids -- crossings of European species with native American species -- have been extraordinarily useful to U.S.  growers, mainly for the vines’ resistance to mildew and rot, and Pierce’s disease, a vine-killing bacteria that is transmitted by insects known as sharpshooters.  Yet not all French-American hybrid varieties tolerate these conditions, and some do so better than others.  None can withstand bitterly cold winters in which temperatures plummet to as low as minus-30 degrees F. 

However, in the last decade or so, states with extreme winter climates, among them Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska and Wisconsin, have had access to American hybrid vines that can withstand deep freezes, thanks to the efforts of plant breeders at the University of Minnesota and Cornell University, among others.  They have and continue to develop cold-climate varieties that, in a relatively short period of time, have demonstrated that they can survive the conditions and produce very good wines -- some of such high quality that they can be mistaken for vinifera-sourced wines.

I have discovered dozens of wines produced from cold-climate hybrid varieties and am particularly enamored with the aromatic, crisp white wines that come from the Brianna, Frontenac Gris, La Crescent, Traminette and Valvin Muscat grapes; Frontenac and Marquette reds, with their intriguing combination of juicy red-cherry flavors, plush tannins and bracing acidity; and Noiret, which produces black-fruited, spicy wines with a firm backbone. 

These varieties are not commercially available in all states, yet there is no reason to think they won’t be in time.  Just think of the growth there could be in U.S.  wineries (there are now more than 7,000) and vine plantings, once U.S.-bred varieties are cultivated in zones previously shut out of the winemaking game!  Locals are likely to embrace these wines for both hometown pride and deliciousness reasons, and tourism should flourish, boosting local economies. 

Some might be surprised to learn that there is some interest in cold-climate hybrids on the West Coast.  A few Washington state nurseries are propagating these varieties, and one of the state’s best-known and skilled vineyard owners, Paul Champoux in the Horse Heaven Hills appellation of Washington State, planted one-half acre of Marquette from greenhouse-grown vines in 2011.  He says Marquette has tremendous potential as both a varietal bottling and an insurance grape, for the vine-damaging, and sometimes killing, freezes the eastern part of Washington endures every seven to 10 years or so.

Image the possibilities, as plant scientists create new varieties that perform under trying seasonal and climatic conditions.  It is a well-known fact among wine aficionados that their favorite beverage is produced in all 50 states, yet some don’t know that if it weren’t for non-grape fruits and grapes purchased from out of state, quite a few of those wineries wouldn’t exist.

Strawberry and blueberry wines have their fans, as do Muscadines and Concords.  Yet the idea that North Dakota, which has average temperatures of 2° to 17° F in January and just 67° in July, might grow wine grapes and produce La Crescent, Frontenac or the Next Great Hybrid Variety, is exciting, to say the least.  Cold-climate viticulture is the next hot thing in America.