Producers are rethinking their devotion to the nobles.
By Kathleen Willcox
The last few years have not been kind to vitis vinifera. Damage from wildfires, hail storms, late and then early frosts, heat waves, drought and excess rain have cost the industry billions of dollars in lost sales. (If that number seems high, consider that France lost an estimated $2 billion in wine sales in 2022 due to an historically low harvest blamed on extreme weather).
Short of growing their grapes in an armored bubble, what can winegrowers do to reduce risk? Increasingly, wineries are exploring less inherently risky, less delicate grape varieties. No one is ready to turn away from international stars yet, but fringier players are gobbling up vineyard space across the globe.
A Taste of the Future in the Past
While increasing plantings of hybrid grapes certainly isn’t foolproof, it can protect growers from some extremes, such as sudden frosts, intense and unseasonal heat and the fungal diseases and pests that can result from unusually hot or wet weather.
The concept of hybrid grape-growing first emerged in the United States when European colonists found that the grapes they brought over from their homeland — vitis vinifera — did not thrive in many of the Eastern and Southern regions where they attempted to plant them. When settlers tried to make wine from local grapes — such as vitis aestivalis, vitis repestris and vitis rotundifolia — the results were less than desirable.
In 1740, gardener James Alexander discovered an accidental cross of vitis vinifera and vitis labrusca; when the thriving cross was turned into wine, it was found to possess many of vinifera’s most desirable flavor and aroma characteristics, as well as labrusca’s hardy constitution.
The auspicious Alexander grape spawned an age of innovation, discovery and the eventual establishment of commercial winemaking in colder or pest-ridden regions and climates where vinifera wouldn’t thrive. In the 20th century, the University of Minnesota, Cornell University and the University of California at Davis began pouring millions into the development of hybrids that could address an array of challenges.
Hybrid Grapes in the Finger Lakes
One region whose history and future are indelibly tied to hybrid grape innovation — then rejection — is New York’s Finger Lakes. In the 1860s, the Pleasant Valley Wine Company began cultivating native and hybrid grapes for wine. For close to a century, hybrids were considered the only option in the region’s flourishing wine industry. That is, until Dr. Konstantin Frank ignited a revolution by planting and successfully growing vitis vinifera.
Until very recently, producing great vitis vinifera was a mark of excellence.
“We go back five generations on Seneca Lake,” says John Wagner, owner of Wagner Vineyards Estate Winery. “My great grandfather mostly farmed native grapes, such as Concord and Niagara, and my father [Bill] embraced French American hybrids as well as native grapes. But [Dad] traveled to Europe, saw winegrowing on a smaller scale and decided he wanted to do that, too.”
Keuka Lake Vineyards, Lakewood Vineyards, Bill returned stateside and, in 1979, the multi-generational family of growers opened Wagner Vineyards Estate Winery. In 1978, they planted Riesling.
“There was a huge learning curve,” Wagner says of initial harvests. “We thought we could farm the grapes in the same way.”
And, while Wagner earned more critical acclaim for its vinifera, it never yanked out the hybrid or native grapes completely.
“Hybrids are much lower risk than vinifera,” Wagner says. “The risk of winter damage is lower, disease pressure is lower. Cornell has an incredible breeding program that has produced grapes that make wines that taste great and require much lower inputs. As stewards of the land, we want to leave our estate better for the next generation, and hybrids are a big part of that puzzle.”
It also makes economic sense to farm both, he says.
“Cornell has done research on the subject, and our own observations also show that hybrids cost about 50% less to farm than vinifera,” Wagner says. “They require less spray, less labor. And we can crop the hybrids more per acre; with vinifera we limit yields to four tons per acre, but with hybrids we get six to seven tons per acre. The flip side is, the grapes are worth a lot less. Hybrids sell for $300 to $800 per ton, whereas vinifera is in the $1,500 to $2,000+ range.”
Half the cost, half the value — but with less risk.
Margot Federkiel says that, since joining Keuka Lake Vineyards as winemaker in 2022 (after stints in Ohio and California), she’s found that hybrids are more than capable of creating stunning wines — if they’re farmed correctly.
“There are still too many people treating hybrids like the red-headed stepchild,” she says. “Forget the umbrella method! It makes no sense in a humid climate. [Hybrids] can make fantastic wines, but you can’t be hands-off. They like the VSP [vertical shoot position] growing method, and then ferment and age it with care.”
Federkiel also makes multiple iterations of hybrids, including three takes on Seyval Blanc (a classic dry, a skin-fermented orange and a Pet-Nat). “We might do a vineyard designate from one block as well,” she adds.
Other Regions Explore Alternatives
These days, even regions that scoffed for centuries at anything but classic vitis vinifera are reconsidering their exclusionary stance.
In 2021, the European Union amended regulations and opened the doors to hybrid and other non-vitis vinifera grape species in an attempt to make the winegrowing industry more sustainable.
Benchmark winegrowing responded immediately. In Bordeaux, Bordeaux Supérior, Médoc and Haut-Médoc, growers have gotten the greenlight to plant and make wines from hybrids including Sauvignac, Souvignier Gris and Floréal, but also the red hybrid, Vidoc Noir. Médoc and Haut-Médoc approved the hybrid grape Voltis as well, which was also authorized as a viable blending grape in Champagne.
French researchers are even taking field trips to the Finger Lakes for intel.
“We hosted Olivier Geffroy, an associate professor of viticulture and enology at Ecole d’Ingénieurs de Purpan, in May,” says Erin McMurrough, brand manager for Lakewood Vineyards in Watkins Glen, N.Y. “The purpose was to talk about consumer acceptance and the advantages and challenges of growing hybrids.”
In Colorado, winegrowers with vinifera in the ground saw their entire harvest destroyed in 2020.
“We lost nearly all of our vinifera vines, down to the ground, to fall frost in 2020,” says Kaibib Sauvage, grape-grower and co-founder at Sauvage Spectrum in Palisade, Colo., adding that the entire industry was affected. “We’d had a similar event in 2014, which is when we’d started looking at cold hardy grapes and trialing them.”
In the frost’s aftermath, they were the only survivors — 10 acres, five varieties.
“Currently, our breakdown is about 22% of our acreage is devoted to cold hardy, 15% to cold resistant and the rest to vinifera,” Sauvage explains. “Our warmest sites are still planted to vinifera, and intermediate sites are getting cold resistant vinifera like Grüner Veltliner, Teroldego and Zweigelt.”
Cold hardy hybrids that the Sauvage Spectrum team have found not only resist weather extremes but make great wines include Petite Pearl, Verona and Chambourcin for reds and Vignoles, Villard Blanc and Aromella for whites.
Sauvage says that other vintners in Colorado have followed suit, planting more hybrids following the devastation of 2020 — and due to the wines’ success at competitions.
“We earned Best in Class from the San Francisco Chronicle and a double gold from Sunset magazine for our Domaine Red, a blend of Petite Pearl, Verona and a very small amount of Mourvedre,” winemaker and cofounder Patric Matysiewski says. “It’s currently Colorado’s highest-rated wine.”
The Golden State Joins In
California is also taking a harder look at alternative varieties for their hardiness.
Gamble Family Vineyards in Napa is working with Ambulo Blanc (97% vitis vinifera, a blend of 62.5% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12.5% Carignane and 12.5% Chardonnay, with the remaining percentage split between two native North American species, vitis arizonica and vitis repestris) to combat Pierce’s Disease.
Whitehall Lane Winery in St. Helena has opted to plant Camminare Noir and Paseante Noir, two other varieties developed at UC Davis, to combat Pierce’s Disease (which costs California grape growers an estimated $100 million per year). The Camminare is a cross between Petite Sirah and Cabernet Sauvignon, and the Paseante is a combination of Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Cabernet Sauvignon.
At Ironstone Vineyards in Murphys, Calif., Vice President of International Operations Joan Kautz explains that the team began exploring the potential of offbeat varieties in 1998. It planted Symphony — the result of a UC Davis cross between Muscat of Alexandria and Grenache Gris — in 1998.
“We increased plantings in 2001 and 2005,” Kautz says. “There’s a growing market for ‘interesting and unique’ varieties. Younger generations are open to experimenting with new wines, and our Obsession Symphony is ideal because it’s fruit-driven, full of flavor, aromatic and has a clean finish.”
Changing Consumer Tastes and Perception
For decades, tastemakers preached the gospel of vitis vinifera, and broad consumer preferences for noble European grapes over their foxier American hybrids (or University of California lab-sponsored crosses) fell in line with their preaching.
But that’s changing, both in terms of actual taste and philosophy. Peer-reviewed academic studies that focus on consumer preferences have found that the “foxy” aromas and flavors that characterize non-vinifera grapes (such as methyl anthranilate and 2-aminoacetophenone) were still considered unappealing by wine professionals, but were accepted by nonexperts in California and Pennsylvania.
Another formal study analyzing consumer acceptance of hybrid grapes in Italy, the U.K. and the United States found that wine lovers who embrace sustainability were even more likely to accept and enjoy wines made from non-vitis vinifera grapes.
Informal observations across the country echo those findings.
“There has been a noticeable shift in the conversation around hybrids,” says Alex Jankowski, vice president of brand development at Wagner Vineyards. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that many of the younger consumers who are interested in sustainability are also more open to different types of wines, including hybrids. We’re also seeing more openness from restaurants that are willing — and even excited — to carry hybrids.”
At Lakewood, McMurrough says its top selling wines are now hybrids.
“Our Bubbly Candeo [made from Cayuga White] is number one, and our Long Stem Red, a blend of Baco Noir, DeChaunac, Foch and Frontenac, is number two,” she says. “The wine world is changing. It used to be that major media outlets wouldn’t accept hybrids even to taste, so our vinifera wines are still leading in terms of medals, ratings and recognition. But in the past two years, that’s changed.”
McMurrough notes that Lakewood’s Stem White, also a blend of hybrid whites, and their Bubbly Candeo were recently featured as wines to try in The Washington Post.
“That was a big deal, but in some ways what was an even bigger deal was that, the fact that they were made from hybrids was barely even mentioned,” she notes. “The focus was on how good the wine was, and they were compared side-by-side with vitis vinifera.”
George Nosis, owner of Atwater Vineyards in Burdett, N.Y., agrees that the marketing and perception of hybrids has changed drastically in a relatively short period.
“When I started in the Finger Lakes in 2008, hybrids weren’t considered serious,” he says. “They were, at best, ‘fun.’ But that’s changing, as people find ways to use them for their strengths and not try to make, say, a robust red from them. It used to be that hybrids weren’t listed in blends on the bottle, but now they are.”
Only about 5% of vineyards across the world are planted with hybrid grapes, according to most experts, including grape geneticist Dr. José Vouillamoz, co-author of Wine Grapes. That number may already be out of date — and, if it isn’t yet, it will be soon, due to the changing climate and consumer tastes.
From the Finger Lakes to Reims, growers and wine lovers are taking a second look at hybrids — and they’re liking what they see…and taste.
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