By Elin McCoy, Bloomberg
THANKS to a crop of renegade, pioneering wine makers making stellar wines in New York, Vermont, Minnesota, famously frigid Quebec, and even Portugal, hybrid grapes are beginning to get the respect they deserve.
For decades, snob drinkers turned up their noses at the wines made from them as too funky, going so far as to describe their taste and smell as akin to animal fur. I have to admit I was one of them.
But recently I tasted a lusciously rich, fruit-packed, amarone-style red made from frontenac grapes grown in Vermont, and a subtle, savory, zingy white from Quebec made from La Crescent. Both grapes were developed at the University of Minnesota to withstand super-cold winters yet make wines with great flavor.
“Serious interest in wines from hybrids is quite a recent phenomenon,” says master sommelier Pascaline Lepeltier, managing partner for New York bistro Racines, who has several on her list. “Thanks to a new generation of hybrids and new producers growing for quality, not quantity, tastes are changing.”
Hybrid grapes, according to Matt Clark, an assistant professor in the department of horticultural science at the University of Minnesota, are crosses between the European vine, vitis vinifera, and various native wild American species such as vitis labrusca.
They started in late 19th century France because phylloxera, a bug that eats the roots of European grape vines, was killing off the country’s vineyards and native American roots proved resistant to it. Grafting vinifera vines onto American rootstock was a way to preserve familiar grapes like pinot noir. Eventually, in the 20th century, planting new vineyards of hybrids was banned, with government pamphlets insisting wine from them was proven to cause madness. (Additionally, French law prohibits using hybrids in any wines with appellation names.)
Later the Eastern US embraced them because they could survive icy winters, but many of the wines had simple jelly-jar flavors unappealing to serious wine drinkers.
Now, University of Minnesota and Cornell are coming up with new, improved hybrids, with better “juice characteristics,” helped by recent DNA research. “It takes 15 to 20 years from the time we identify the parent grapes to licensing vines to be planted commercially,” says Clark of the product development. Minnesota’s latest is a white, Itasca, now in test plots around the US.
Deirdre Heekin and her husband, Caleb Barber, of La Garagista farm and winery in Vermont, who grow several hybrids organically and biodynamically, are among the new producers whose wines have made a splash in New York and London. They make as many as 15 wines, including several sparkling pét-nats. Still, prejudice against these wines remains.
“When we started in 2010, hybrids were vino non grata to buyers,” says Heekin, “so we took the varietal name off the labels and just asked sommeliers to taste.” She’s convinced the interest in Italy’s native grapes primed people for being more open to hybrids. Her wines inspired Lepeltier to start her own pét-nat project, Chepika, with hybrids, with Finger Lakes wine maker Nathan Kendall. Their first vintage was 2016.
In the Hudson Valley, Carlo DeVito, who founded Hudson-Chatham winery in 2006, has had big success with baco noir. “Typically wineries make a sweet red from it,” he says. “But I thought, What will happen if we treat it like merlot or cabernet? And it ended up great.” He now makes four different cuvées.
More hybrids are in your future. Their disease resistance, which means fewer chemicals needed in the vineyards, is one reason France approved several new ones last year. The University of Minnesota is actively working to get marquette into Germany and France.
It’s a whole new world of wine flavors, with dozens of promising hybrids. Here are my picks of those with the most potential right now.
• Delaware: This native American grape, once famed for spicy sparkling wines, has a tangled past that involves vinifera. Besides the US, it’s also grown in Japan.
2017 Chepika Delaware PetNat ($28) — This refreshing, frothy pét-nat from organic Delaware grapes is clear, not cloudy, with crisp layered flavors of green apple and lemon with a mineral edge.
• La Crescent: This University of Minnesota cold-hardy white variety is a cross of muscat and other hybrids. You find it in Quebec, Minnesota, and Vermont, and it also makes a delicious pét-nat.
2017 Pinard et Filles Frangine ($57) — This intriguing, subtle white has mineral and earth aromas and green apple flavors. It was my favorite example from the La Crescent grape.
• Traminette: Highly versatile, this cross between aromatic gewurztraminer and a French-American hybrid makes both dry and sweet wines, but the best I’ve tasted are dry. It’s like gewurz without the oily, viscous texture.
2017 Fox Run Vineyards Traminette ($15) — Fresh, bright, and delicate, this fun, refreshing Finger Lakes summer white has exotic aromas of lychee and spicy apricot flavors.
• Vidal blanc: It thrives all over Ontario (think ice wine), and is even planted in Sweden and also used to make very fruity dry whites.
2017 Inniskillin Vidal Icewine ($53, half bottle) — Honeysuckle and candied orange peel aromas and lush, sweet flavors of honey and butterscotch make this a luscious dessert wine.
• Vignoles: This cross between a white French-American hybrid and pinot noir is widely planted in the Finger Lakes and the Midwest and reminds me of a combo of riesling and sauvignon blanc. It can also make a subtle, complex late-harvest sweet wine.
2015 Keuka Lake Vineyards Gently Dry Vignoles ($17) — Brimming with aromas of white flowers, this Finger Lakes white is crisp, clean, and zingy, just the thing you want to drink at the beach.
• Baco Noir: This French-American hybrid is a signature red grape in the Hudson Valley. Its flavors are like a midpoint between pinot noir and cabernet, but poorly made examples taste weedy and bitter.
2015 Hudson-Chatham Baco Noir Reserve Casscles Vineyard ($26) — The New York state winery makes several very good reds from this grape. This cuvée has complex black cherry, smoky, savory flavors, high acidity, and delicate but rich textures.
• Frontenac: Both white and red French-American hybrids are behind this University of Minnesota grape. Introduced in 1996, it’s widely planted in the Hudson Valley, Vermont, and the Midwest.
2016 La Garagista Loups-Garoux ($45) — Dark, intense, and smooth, this Vermont red is spicy, rich, and full-bodied, with a tart edge. It’s made ripasso-style like amarone, from a mix of fresh and dried grapes.
• Isabella: An older cross between vitis labrusca and some unidentified European variety, this grape can withstand tropical conditions, which is why it’s planted on Bali and in India as well as Portugal’s Azores.
2016 Azores Wine Company Isabella a Proibida ($36) — This wine has a wild, exotic character, with rich cherryish flavors, an earthy, iron tang, and salty acidity. The name is obscured on the label because the grape is officially prohibited in the European Union.
• Marquette: Introduced in 2006 by the University of Minnesota, this red is high in acidity, low in tannin, and reminds me of gamay. It’s the red hybrid that most impressed me.
2016 La Garagista Damejeanne ($45) — Bright, floral, spicy, and power-packed with fruit and flavor, this Vermont red has some gamay character but a richer personality.
2017 Pinard & Filles Frangin ($57) — This lighter-bodied, thirst-quenching Quebec blend of marquette and frontenac gris (a mutant of frontenac) has elegant sour cherry and raspberry fruit flavors.