Why US winemakers are seeking out non-vitis vinifera grapes
There will always be a place for conventionally produced vitis vinifera. But, in truth, more and more influential producers and consumers are looking for something with a little more soul, and a lot more edge.
Hybrids—especially in the challenging grape-growing zone of the East Coast—have become ascendant for several reasons.
First, more consumers are seeking out unconventional, organically grown wines. IWSR predicts that by 2023, about 976 million bottles of organic wine will be consumed, up 34 percent from 720 million in 2018.
Younger wine lovers are especially keen to find wines produced from sustainably grown grapes, according to Silicon Valley Bank’s most recent Wine Industry Trends and Report, which stated “sustainability, health and environmental issues,” in tandem with concerns over “social justice, equity and diversity,” are driving the purchasing decisions of Millennials and members of Gen Z.
Unfortunately growing classic vitis vinifera in certain East Coast regions is nigh impossible without nuking them with chemicals.
But growing hybrids pretty much anywhere is arguably easier. And more eco-friendly.
Thankfully, the pioneering work of scientists and early adopters of non-vinifera grapes have helped yield a new generation of growers, producers and consumers who embrace them.
The Hybrid Science
Programs at Cornell University and University of Minnesota have created thousands of new varieties of grapes designed to combat diseases and weather challenges. Grapes that emerge from these programs are typically crosses between so-called European vinifera, and others native to North America and Asia, like riparia, labrusca and rotondifolia.
Cornell has been working on developing hybrid grapes for more than 100 years.
“Genetic sequencing technology has come a long way, and in the past 10 years we have been able to use sequencing to quickly determine cold hardiness and disease resistance,” says Bruce Reisch, a professor who specializes in grapevine breeding. He joined Cornell in 1980, and since then, has released 10 new wine grapes and four seedless table grapes. He explains that they are not genetically modifying the grapes, merely determining which ones will flourish in challenging conditions, and pursuing the more promising hybrids.
For wineries like Shelburne Vineyard in the Champlain Valley, where winters are harsh, springs rainy, and summers humid, the work of scientists like Reisch is nothing less than essential.
“Shelburne has been planting hybrids since 1998, and while they pioneered hybrid grape growing in Vermont, we have all been thrilled to see how much the market has grown and developed,” says winemaker Ethan Joseph, who joined Shelburne in 2008. “We’ve learned how important site selection, careful vineyard management, and low intervention winemaking are. We treat our hybrids with as much care and thought as other growers treat their vitis vinifera, and that has allowed the terroir and the best qualities of these grapes to shine through.”
Joseph’s ultimate goal is to eliminate the use of chemicals, a feat he says would be “impossible” if they grew all vitis vinifera. He’s most excited about Marquette (a Pinot Noir hybrid with notes of cherry, pepper and summer berries), Louise Swenson (a white hybrid with acidity, and floral notes), and La Crescent (a white wine hybrid with notes of apricot, citrus, and peach).
In 2017, Shelburne went out on a limb and pushed aggressively into the natural wine and hybrid space with Iapetus. “That line has skyrocketed,” Joseph notes. “Now it comprises about 40 percent of our 5,000-case annual count.”
Convincing the Consumer
Colleen Hardy, co-owner of Living Roots Wine Co. in the Finger Lakes and Adelaide, concurs. She launched Living Roots in 2016, in partnership with her South Australian winemaking husband Sebastian as a kind of cross-global viticultural experiment.
“We wanted to use grapes in both regions that are, first and foremost, climate appropriate,” Sebastian Hardy says. “In the Finger Lakes, that means Riesling, Pinot Gris, and Gewürztraminer, but also Aromella, Arendell, Rougeon, Regent and Petit Pearl.” The couple, who sells 85 percent of their production from their tasting room, doesn’t have trouble hand-selling their hybrid and hybrid-vitis vinifera blended wines. “Once we talk visitors through it.”
Colleen Hardy says that finding high-quality hybrids is dependent on the grower. “We offer to pay more if they grow it with the same care that we expect with vinifera, and hold off on spraying,” she says
“In the Hudson Valley, especially if you want to grow organically, hybrids are necessary,” says Todd Cavallo, who founded Wild Arc Farm in Pine Bush, N.Y. with his wife Crystal. “We lost our entire crop of Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir in 2018. We replanted some of the Pinot Noir, but the rest we planted to hybrids.”
Wild Arc’s one-acre estate vineyard is primarily experimental though; they source most of their grapes.
“We are working with other like-minded producers who want organically grown hybrid grapes,” Cavallo explains. “A lot of [hybrids] have been grown for bulk wines, but we are promising growers that if they change their farming practices, we’ll pay more.”
By working cooperatively, Cavallo and others hope that they can simultaneously increase the value of hybrid fruit, and change market perception.
Philadelphia-based Alexandra Cherniavsky, a sommelier and consultant who finds distribution for wineries at restaurants, has seen the market for hybrid wines change firsthand. But she believes there’s still a long way to go before restaurants are ready to open their lists to hybrids.
“Once people try wines made from hybrid grapes, they’re a lot more open,” she says. “They sell well in tasting rooms, where the winemaking team can explain their history and provide context.”
But if they’re going to take off, they need to appear on more restaurant lists. “Wineries should approach local restaurants armed with the educational materials and context they provide at the tasting room. If they know how to explain them to diners, they’ll be a lot more liable to put them on the list,” Cherniavsky says.
Not Just for Challenging Climates
The East Coast is hardly the only place hybrids are found. At Bells Up Winery in Newberg, Oregon, winemaker Dave Specter says that their Seyval Blanc is farmed with fewer chemicals than his vitis vinifera. And, the wines have achieved “cult status,” selling out every year.
“We are the only planting of Seyval Blanc in Willamette Valley, and only the second in Oregon. It’s not only a part of our plan to diversify our vineyards and enable us to react to climate change, but also part of our larger push to appeal to younger, more adventurous consumers,” he says.
A parallel movement, PIWI, is happening in Europe, although as Reisch explains, it’s slightly different.
“Most of Europe does not have the harsh winters that we do here,” he says. “The hybrid programs there are inherently very different, because their grapes are being crossed with the goal of resisting different disease and weather pressures.”
Some regions have yet to open the door to hybrids; they’re banned in France in wines with appellation names, but for a certain type of American winemaker—and consumer—that kind of prohibition only makes them more enchanting.
Kathleen Willcox writes about wine, food and culture from her home in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. She is keenly interested in sustainability issues, and the business of making ethical drinks and food. Her work appears regularly in Wine Searcher, Wine Enthusiast, Liquor.com and many other publications. Kathleen also co-authored a book called Hudson Valley Wine: A History of Taste & Terroir, which was published in 2017. Follow her wine explorations on Instagram at @kathleenwillcox