Wine Talk

Snooth User: Richard Foxall

Hybrids, what's up with them?

Posted by Richard Foxall, Dec 20, 2011.

Emark just wrote about a Barbera/Ruby Cabernet blend, which reminded me of some other not very successful "hybrid" grapes a la Ruby Cabernet developed in Europe and the US, like Pinotage, Marechal Foch, Seyval Blanc, Muller-Thurgau, etc.  I've had some wines made from these grapes (Pinotage from S.A., Marechal Foch from the Pacific NW) and they didn't really impress.  But the wines we love--pinot noir, Cab sauv, for Californians Petite Sirah--were "natural" hybrids, and most varieties are the results of random crosses of a few originating lines.  (Can't say species, since all vitis vinifera are the same species.)  These grapes have surpassed their parents, in many cases hugely.  (PS likely is Peloursin, which no one cares about, and Syrah, which it can't be said to have surpassed, but it really takes off in California, where it can make stunning wine.)

So anyone have any insight into why the naturally occurring crosses have consistently produced better wine, or are we just conditioned by years of exposure to those old, self-initiated crossings?


Reply by GregT, Dec 21, 2011.

Conditioning. There's no reason whatsoever that new crosses can't be as good or better.  But if you have a vineyard full of Cab Sauv in Napa or Bordeaux, are you going to rip it up for something that is objectively better, but lacking any pedigree?

Consumers of high-end wines are ultra conservative, even reactionary. It's one reason we still have cork closures. And also a good reason we don't have better trellising systems that could increase yields. A good many of the consumers don't know what they're tasting - they buy by labels, reputation, and points.  Planting a new hybrid instead of Merlot? No more market.

So it's a huge lift even if you have a superior grape. Now, on top of that, add the trials you need to put the grape through.  Plant a vineyard, wait a few years for the grapes to mature, make some wine, analyze, tweak.  Can you adjust the planting density? The row orientation? The pruning or trellising? The picking time?  Oh, and by the way, maybe your grape doesn't do well in your soil but it would be great at a higher/lower elevation with more/less water/sunlight/temperature swings.

Whoops. Even if you can adjust those things, what about the weather?  Which variable mattered most? So you figure 10-20 years just to find out if your grape is worth much. And then you have to propagate it so that you have enough for people to try planting in different regions.

I think it's utterly and absolutely possible to breed better grapes that may have more disease resistance, etc. But it will take a generation to get traction. And are you willing to spend your entire career pursuing something that may turn out in the end to be a lost cause?

Rose breeders have many of the same concerns. However, they sell roses to individuals who have really little invested - a spot in the garden and a few bucks for the plant. So you do your cross, plant the seed, pick the rose that you like, put it thru the trials and then propagate it and you've spent some 7, 8, 9, 10 years before you put it on the market.  Then it has a useful life of just a few years and it's displaced by something new. Grape breeders have much longer horizons, bigger investments that they need to scare up, and far more resistance to their efforts. So for all practical purposes, grape hybridizing has stopped.

It will take someplace like China, with no wine culture, to put the resources and time into developing grapes. They may do it out of nationalist pride, who knows. But I don't see European countries promoting new varieties and I don't see US customers buying them.

Reply by Richard Foxall, Dec 21, 2011.

Thanks, GregT, and that could be the last word on the subject.  But I do have this comment:  Branding is a huge factor.  Truth of the matter is that clonal selection in labs and enology schools goes on and on, and with many of the same goals--yields that are higher without compromising flavor, improved disease resistance (or elimination of existing viruses, which may account for much of a variety's "typicity").  Even without introducing a"new" variety, there's a huge timespan before the clones come to market, and some of that is just to make sure that the clone is, in fact, virus free.  But as long as they can call it Pinot Noir Clone 667.5 (or the GregT clone, since they use names, too), there seems to be a market.

But there were years of cloning--even centuries--and, other than Muller-Thurgau, the market for those wines is pretty tiny.  Even M-T is a laggard and probably benefits a bit by the fact that it's grown mostly in places where the variety is not foremost on the label--you can buy a Pradikat wine without really knowing it isn't riesling.  I've had pinotage and it's fair, but nothing special, and I've had M. Foch pretty recently and wouldn't go out of my way to have it.  So I get why little hybridization goes on these days in terms of the investment, but if it's possible to make better grapes by hybridization, why didn't it happen?  Luther Burbank singlehandedly changed a lot of agriculture quite a while ago, while the grape hybridizers just didn't have much impact, it seems.  And that was pre-varietal labeling.

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