By Paul Tonacci
On the west coast, hybrid grapes may hardly make a din in winemaking conversations, being chiefly used in the production of table wines and eating grapes. However, on the east coast where winemaking is an entirely different reality, hybrid grapes represent much more to many of its winemakers up and down the country’s eastern reaches.
Traditionally, hybrids were grown for high yields, ripeness and disease-resistance, but increasing numbers of winemakers are making wines from these cultivars that exceed the confines of the “table wine” category and challenge the idea of where great wine can be made. Inarguably, hybrids are here to stay, but as the discussion about their propagation shifts from which varieties give its growers the highest yields and transitions into discussions of wine quality, new questions are raised including whether hybrid grapes can display that wonderfully idiosyncratic French term, “terroir”, like their vinifera counterparts, or do these crossings come at a price that their terroir identity is lost.
For New Jersey winemaker and proprietor, Jim Quarella of Bellview Winery in Landisville, the question of whether hybrids manifest terroir can only be addressed if the grapes are being grown properly. If the vines are high cordon-trellised, they haven’t produced the same quality fruit as with vertical shoot positioning, he asserts. Backing his beliefs are the vineyard tests he performed over the years to know for sure, but as part of the local winemaking community, he’s quick to share his findings with others.
“Any discussion about terroir can only take place if the best possible fruit is being grown in the vineyard,” Jim says. He is so confident about the existence of terroir in hybrid wine he’s among a small group of winemakers in the Outer Coastal Plain AVA of southern New Jersey that led the charge to create a unique red blend called, “Coeur d’Est”, or in English, “Heart of the East” that must include 30% of the hybrid grape, Chambourcin. He hopes that people can taste the terroir that’s unique to his AVA but is also enjoyable and ageable.
In lockstep with these sentiments about producing the best possible fruit from hybrid cultivars is University of Maryland Professor and Extension Specialist of Viticulture and Small Fruit, Dr. Joseph Fiola, who recently gave a seminar at the Eastern Winery Exposition on March 9th in Lancaster, PA discussing his trials with the hybrid, Chardonel.
One of the most poignant takeaways – albeit obvious for those whom already practice it – was the necessity of tending to hybrid grape varieties with the same regard as vitis vinifera in order to produce the best wines. Not surprisingly, tasting his wines that afternoon left little doubt about the positive benefits. Dr. Fiola did share that in his visits to some vineyards and wineries it was clear some of these hybrid grape varieties more closely resembled a wine that was a “workhorse” in terms of total yields but wasn’t fashioned to be a fine wine producing grapevine.
The idea of terroir among hybrid grapes is very intriguing to many winemakers including Mike Sammons II, a consulting oenologist with his own practice called Mercenary Wine. Having done horizontal tastings of Chambourcin, he firmly believes terroir exists, but it’s the impact of the growing season on hybrids that he knows is incomplete; another hybrid like Baco Noir could be the best variety to grow instead of Chambourcin he may discover down the road, but that’s why he hopes more tests are being done by others equally as curious.
Mike’s first Chambourcin harvest at Plagido’s Winery, an operation in Hammonton, New Jersey, took place only last year, but he looks forward to seeing how his wines’ unique terroir manifests itself, and how it may contribute to the debate on New Jersey’s own distinct terroir.
There’s even some specific literature on the subject concerning hybrids cultivation and its regional styles, and one of the best books has to be Stephen Casscles’ “Grapes of the Hudson Valley,” in which the grape growing winemaker-cum-author shares what he’s learned in the field. For example, he’s chronicled from his tastings that a grape like Chambourcin takes on a more southern Rhone-like style with softer tannins and more supple fruit when produced in Virginia, but in the Hudson Valley, the grape tends to express itself with higher tartaric acid levels and is a bit leaner, comparatively.
These regional differences are his terroir: the hydrology of the soil, mineral composition, latitude, all are intrinsically part of any wine’s identity, Stephen affirms. Most interestingly, his work identifies that particular hybrid cultivars are better-suited to display terroir than others; Chancellor and Ravat 51 (a.k.a. Vignoles), being deeply flavored wines aren’t as keen barometers of a regional style as Vidal Blanc, Baco Noir, Seyval Blanc and others.
Richard Leahy, the Eastern Winery Exposition organizer and author of “Beyond Jefferson’s Vines,” sees things a little differently regarding the topic. He states that on a purely scientific level, all grapes – both hybrids and vitis vinifera – will manifest different metabolites (e.g. brix and acids) when grown in varying climates, something more akin to a snapshot than the classical understanding of terroir over substantial periods of time.
However, on the east coast where hybrid varieties are a tent pole of the local industry, there hasn’t been enough focus on quality production with a terroir focus in mind he believes. Be that as it may, some growing areas are ahead of the curve and embrace a particular hybrid grape. For instance, Richard goes on to say, “In the Allentown area [Pennsylvania] they have a Chambourcin Trail […] since it does so well there. […] In Indiana, they’ve made Traminette the state grape, but there’s a difference between “growing well”, being popular, and terroir.”
There is much agreement among the mid-Atlantic winemaking regions about hybrid grapes’ ability to capture site- and region-specific terroir, but the discussion has many nuanced opinions. Trial locations are being planted, new grape varieties continue to be tested, and many winemaking experiments are being conducted.
To some in the field, it has the feel of the next unexplored wine frontier, but terroir discussion is evidently still in its preliminary stages, though with each passing harvest east coast winemakers are steps closer to understanding the climactic challenges better. Perhaps, like grapes in a vineyard before harvest, the possibilities of terroir-focused hybrid variety propagation will yield very captivating results.