Wine Talk

Snooth User: WineGeekJen

Hybrids vs. vitis vinifera

Posted by WineGeekJen, Dec 16, 2009.

This week I interviewed a local wine maker here in Western Pennsylvania for my podcast. He makes all of his wines from hybrid grapes because they grow best here in Western PA. His logic is that pretty much once a decade we have a winter cold enough to kill vitis vinifera grapes and they would never be able to reach their full potential here. Do you think that its best for wine growers/makers concentrate only on grapes that grow best in their area (even if they are hybrids or vitis labrusca) or do you think they are better off putting a lot of time and effort into producing the all important vitis vinifera vines and wines?

If you want to listen to the podcast you can get it at or you can download it from iTunes (East Coast Wine Geeks Episode 36)


Reply by chadrich, Dec 17, 2009.

A similar challenge exists in the south related to heat. While some growers here in Georgia are now making good quality wines with vinifera grapes, that's a recent development and I'm interested to see their long-term success. Having previously visited wineries in Florida, Georgia and Alabama all using hybrid grapes, I think these growers face a huge uphill battle. From my observations, those using hybrid grapes are treated as a novelty...intersting to visit and pick-up a bottle if you're passing by, but not likely to ever gain enough of a following to have the same success as a vinifera-based operation.

Reply by GregT, Dec 17, 2009.

They should grow what grows best in their area and if they can't make good wine out of it, they should not make wine.

Not every region can or should make wine. I can't grow pineapples in Canada so why should I expect to make wine in Hawaii?

There is no reason at all to imagine that good wine can't be made from hybrid grapes, but there has been very little research in that area. And I know there are a few wineries who are making efforts, but that accounts for next to nothing against the history and quantity of work done with European grapes.

There's a conservatism in the wine world that mitigates against anything different and there's a sense that the only grapes worth taking about are already in existence - e.g. France does not allow plantings of new European/American crosses. We don't mind hybridizing carrots or pigs or roses or pistachios or anything else, but you can't do it with grapes.

Obviously, there are branding reasons for maintaining the various appellation systems in Europe, but other than marketing, there's no reason that one couldn't produce great wine with other grapes than those currently planted in their respective areas. And there's no reason not to try wine making with hybrid grapes here in the US. But the flip side is that one must be prepared to discover that it just doesn't work.

Reply by penguinoid, Dec 17, 2009.

My impression is that the AOC system has little to do with branding, and everything to do with preserving regionality in the wine. I guess you could argue that a particular AOC is also a brand, but I don't think that's the whole point of it.

Reminds me of something I read in "Bordeaux/Burgundy: a vintage rivalry" by Jean-Robert Pitte:

"Michel Réjalot very judiciously suggests that, when it comes to wine, the Anglo-Saxon[1] world is more attached to companies and brands, whereas in the Latin world the love of products rooted in the soil led to the creation of the controlled appellation system, with its insistence on vins de terroir."

Maybe I'm mistaken, but the AOC system never really seems to be about brands to me (though a few big AOCs do seem to market themselves like brands -- e.g. Bordeaux). If it is, it's really doing it wrong -- there shouldn't be so many small, obscure AOCs. They're not helpful if it's all about brands and brand recognition, but are if it's about preserving the regionality of wine.

[1] Umm, obviously he doesn't really mean "Anglo-Saxon" since he's talking about the modern wine industry, not e.g. that of the 5th century AD. In the same way, I guess, the "Latin" world no longer speaks any form of classical Latin...

Reply by penguinoid, Dec 17, 2009.

Getting back to the topic of hybrid grapes, I've read that hybrids have been used quite a bit in English wines. I've not had the chance to try and of them yet, but apparently some of them are producing good wines:

Unfortunately, a lot of the regulations which apply to European wine producing regions also apply to the UK meaning that use of hybrids is somewhat discouraged -- they have to be classified as UK Table Wine. Understandable, maybe, in regions with established wine growing traditions but less helpful in new wine growing regions.

Reply by dmcker, Dec 17, 2009.

Regarding your francophone comments on branding, penguinoid, I say 'tomehto, tomahto'. Besides the inherent rural farming conservatism, the AOC system appears to be nothing but an attempt to 'brand' regional groups of terroirs. That is certainly how they've protected their brands worldwide as they've chased down New World producers who used names like 'Chablis', 'Champagne', etc., etc. for their products in the past. And though I'm only seeing one quote perhaps out of context, Rejalot is being more than a little disingenuous in his effort to brand Gallic (and he's forced to include Italian and Hispanic producers through his use of cultural language) advantage in an area where they arguably can do better than the English, Americans et al.

If questioned about the business practices of the Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy Group, I wonder what his response would be....

Reply by WineGeekJen, Dec 17, 2009.

They do a good job with hybrids in Ontario and a lot of eastern US wineries do a good job with late harvest Vidal Blanc and blending Bacco Noir and even Marechal Foch. New wine drinkers seem to like the hybrids because they are usually done in a sweeter style and your not going to get a lot of tannins even in a Bacco Noir as you would in Cab Sauv. or Merlot so they don't seem as "dry" to people who do not drink wine. I think you can import your grapes and be a great wine maker anywhere, but for example here in Western PA, you have to love what your doing to try to have a vineyard--the weather is unpredictable and there are such drastic soil differences. They have much better luck up in Lake Erie. Though, you can do a good bit of business just growing v. labrusca and hybrids because people really like foxy wines around here :-).

Reply by penguinoid, Dec 17, 2009.

I've noticed that the French have complained about other countries using their appellation names. France isn't the only country in Europe to have complained about this -- the French have had to stop calling Tokay d'Alsace "Tokay", as Hungary complained. It's with good reason too: chardonnay grown outside of the Chablis region isn't Chablis, because it's from a different terroir. Again, it's at least as much (if not more) about terroir than branding.

I've heard producers in Australia complain about this, but personally I can't help thinking that if a French winemaker started producing their own 'Barossa Shiraz', Australian winemakers would be at least as upset as the French are about Australians using their wine region names.

Despite the quote I used, I think that wine makers in countries such as Australia are beginning to realise the importance of regionality. I think his argument was that in regions like Australia, the region the wine is produced in is secondary to the brand producing the wine (e.g. Penfolds, Brown Brothers, etc).

The argument that wine from Chablis is unique because of the terroir there is just as valid for wine from the Napa Valley or the Barossa Valley. Pretty much every wine producing country will argue that *their* wine is the best in the world, it'd be nice if we could get past that and see that every wine producing region has its own unique character to contribute.

There are good arguments for making AOC regulations somewhat more flexible. It's about local winemaking traditions, but tradition is never static unless it's dead.

Reply by GregT, Dec 17, 2009.

Penguinoid - I was editorializing in my wording, but in fact I agree w dmucker. The thing is, what is "regionality" other than branding? When you talk about Burgundy, to you mistake it for Barossa? No and I'd argue that's a perfect example of branding, and why they object to Gallo's "Hearty Burgundy".

Now for some more editorializing - IMHO, they've gone so far that the regionality is not even allowed to show. IF there were such obvious regional differences, then any grape should demonstrate such differences, no? And almost any regime? But instead, you're told that you can't plant nebbiolo in Bordeaux, or merlot in Burgundy. And many regions have regulations on when certain things must be complete, e.g. when the wine can no longer be on the lees in the Loire or when maceration must be finished in Piedmonte.

When you tell someone what they are allowed to plant and then how they must vinify it, that's less about regionality than about developing some sort of reference, or, if you will, a brand. And having put years of effort into explaining why pinot noir is so perfect for Burgundy for ex, the vested interests are going to object to any new grapes showing up there. Multiply that across Europe where each little region has some interested parties in maintaining some local varieties, and you're unlikely to get anything new, even if it would be possible to develop a hybrid with better disease resistance, better acid/sugar balance, more uniform ripening, better yield, etc. In other words, even if it were possible to develop grapes that were better-suited for their local environments, that would not be allowed. The French banned crosses a while ago and I believe most other countries have too, but I haven't checked.

However, I did try a new grape a month ago - it's a cross between grenache and merlot? Can't remember off the top, but only one guy was producing it in the south of France and he's the first and I believe the only one who is permitted. That was interesting.

In Australia and the US, there isn't the same status quo resisting new developments, but the wine consumers tend to be conservative. They've heard of chardonnay so they're happy to buy it. They don't know falanghina so they don't buy it. The trendies buy it and then it becomes mainstream, but it needs to be introduced. However, it can be introduced, since there isn't a local grape that's been cherished for centuries, so if anything is to come out of crosses between the different types, it will have to come from the new world.

Reply by penguinoid, Dec 17, 2009.

Interesting comment. Personally, I'd say that the choice of grapes and vinification methods often form part of terroir, assuming you're growing varieties suited to the region. Terroir is as much about the history and traditions (the human aspects) of a winemaking region as it is about soil, climate, aspect, etc.

Certainly, I think there should be more flexibility for wine producers to experiment with other grape varieties. The challenge here is to avoid loss of traditional varieties in favour of whatever the grape of the minute is. Old vine Grenache, Syrah and others were infamously ripped up in Australia in favour of Chardonnay when that was the grape of the minute, and Chardonnay planted even in regions where it is not particularly suited to the climate or the soil. This is the sort of thing that AOC regulations (are meant to) prevent. It'd be nice, though, if this could be balanced out against a desire to experiment with new grape varieties, maybe including hybrids. Winemakers *can* do this to a certain extent under Vin de Pays regulations, but these are often considered uneconomic. Maybe high-quality Vin de Pays needs to get a bit of a better public profile?

Australian producers are experimenting with alternative varieties, and certainly have produced some interesting wines. My guess is that they will have to look towards Mediterranean region grape varieties increasingly as the climate in Australia becomes hotter and drier, and maybe less suitable for varieties such as Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Merlot. That consumers are quite conservative might be a problem here -- people tend to look for a few key varieties such as Chardonnay, Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon. I guess in that sense these varieties could also be said to have become 'brands'. (I tend to think of the term brand solely referring to the image of a single commercial or corporate organisation, but I guess it can be used more widely than this -- looking up the dictionary I see it can also mean "a recognizable kind").

Reply by GregT, Dec 18, 2009.

"Terroir is as much about the history and traditions (the human aspects) of a winemaking region as it is about soil, climate, aspect, etc."

That's a really broad definition though, and it completely precludes any area from showing terroir if it's a new area. In other words, you see the mountains in Chile and imagine that they might be an interesting place to grow vines, so you plant some. Maybe the Spanish didn't plant there back in the 1600s. The soils, the climate, everything about the place is unique, but if you need tradition then you can't talk about terroir for 200 years. So I use it in a much more restricted sense. Also, I think that if you include the human element, you can manufacture a wine to show whatever you need to.

But anyhow, I think you're right about the Australian producers. Those I've talked to are looking at the grapes from Portugal, where it can routinely be over 100 F in the summer, which would cause most vines to shut down. And I think if crosses were to be viable, they'd get their best shot in Australia. The Australians are some of the most freewheeling and consequently some of the most innovative winemakers around and if I'd put my money on any group to come up with something successful out of left field, it would be them.

Chardonnay happened here in the US too. Merlot is another one. And PN too. But I wouldn't trust the AOC. They claim their rules prevent the wrong grapes, but how do they even know? They don't. Nobody ever planted zin in Burgundy, or nebbiolo or tempranillo. It's politics.

I completely agree with you about the Vin de Pays tho. The designation contains some of the most tradition-bound winemakers in France, but also some of the most innovative. I think Lee Goundry from Australia was making wine there? Great name too. It ran afoul of the naming rules, so it was something like "Wine Made in France by Australians." Then there was "The Fifteen" because it was over the 15% alcohol mark. You gotta love it.

Reply by penguinoid, Dec 19, 2009.

I don't think it precludes any new regions from showing terroir, but where a region and its wine has been shaped by centuries of tradition that has to have some impact. Given that these areas have had grapes grown for centuries, the terroir has been subtly modified by changes made by people. This, and the winegrowing traditions of the region will have an impact on the wine and the terroir in which it grows. Choice of grape varieties is down to a combination of history and politics, and it does seem a vexed question as to where the influence of terroir ends and the influence of the choice of variety starts. The book I cited earlier -- Burgundy/Bordeaux: A Vintage Rivalry has quite a lot of discussion about the history and politics behind the choice of grape varieties in those regions.

New regions won't have the aspect of tradition, but people will still be beginning to alter the terroir. Even just planting grapevines will have changed the environment of the new vineyard. It's the start of a tradition, if it succeeds. These new sites will also have all the other, non-human aspects of terroir -- climate, soil, aspect, etc. These will be there, and will have an impact on the growing grapes and therefore (probably) on the wine produced. (I say probably because it does seem that you can make wine which is not at all about expressing terroir if you want). Terroir's a fairly fuzzy concept I guess, and certainly not one that I understand fully yet, and maybe never will.

I think there certainly should be more room for experiment, and maybe at least trial planting of different varieties in AOC regions with the view to introducing them more widely if it is a success. As I said, though, the trick is to avoid introducing varieties simply because they are in fashion, and regardless of whether they suit the growing environment.

Not certain I'd drink a wine called "Wine Made in France by Australians". Maybe I'm wrong, but I do tend to have a low opinion of flying winemakers. The one you cite could be an exception, but too often they seem to just want to prove that they can make a new world style fruit-driven wine in an old world region. Well, of course that's possible. But it won't be a wine that's true to the region it was grown in.

Anyway, I have to go afk for Christmas, so I'll probably miss out on the rest of this discussion. Not that that will be a tragedy for anybody ;-)

Reply by GregT, Dec 21, 2009.

Not at all! have a great Christmas and post when you get back.

I don't disagree entirely regarding the flying winemakers, but north/south hemisphere makes more sense than all over the same hemisphere, e.g. France, CA, Spain, etc. And in some cases, the new guy might just be the catalyst for jump-starting the locals. I guess the best example of that would be the Iron Curtain countries, but even more recently, places in Spain and France that had unrealized potential.

As for planting itself altering the environment - I wish more people would recognize that most important and basic point. Spacing, training, orientation, grape selection, clone selection, all of that is fundamental and IMO probably more important than just about anything else.

Anyhow, all the best over the holidays.

Reply by penguinoid, Jan 8, 2010.

Yes, things like spacing, training, orientation, grape and clone selection probably are more important than they're given credit for. How these things alter and interact with other aspects of terroir such as climate, soil and site aspect is probably not easy to say. It would be hard to do any studies too, as finding a vineyard large enough to contain a good number of (e.g.) different spacing regimes but no other terroir variations would, I think, be difficult if not impossible.

I tend to be quite sceptical of flying winemakers, but I guess they could well introduce some new techniques that are beneficial. The simple thing of keeping the winery very, very clean is one that has been overlooked int the past but certainly can make big improvements. I do worry about the erosion of traditional winemaking methods, but even there it's good to re-evaluate them from time to time. Just not to abandon or ignore them wholesale.

Christmas was great, and it was nice to be away from the internet and the telephone for a short time. Still have to post wine tasting notes I made ;-)

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