Hybrid grapes are a well kept secret to wine consumers, especially in Midwest wine country

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By: Frank Piaskowy

Frank Piaskowy

Even though 80 percent of the world’s wine is made from the “big six” varieties of grapes, there is much more to winemaking.

For instance, I had the opportunity to taste a wine made from Habanero peppers last year. (Yes, there was a prolonged burning sensation left in my mouth.) Fruits Hills Winery and Orchard in Bristol has apple, strawberry, cherry and blueberry wines. Sake is technically a rice wine.

The big six – Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon – are examples of European wine grape varieties that are often requested by name.

Some of the bestselling wines from Indiana’s largest winery, Oliver Winery in Bloomington, are its Soft Red (made with Concord grapes), Soft Rose (Catawba) and Soft White (Niagara); none of which are European varieties.

In fact, these particular grapes are considered an entirely different species than European grapes, or Vitis vinifera. Concord, Catawba and Niagara are classified as species Vitis labrusca.

While the Concord grape is native to North America, Catawba and Niagara are considered classes of hybrid grapes. Catawba is thought to be the result of breeding between Vitis labrusca and Vitis vinifera. Niagara is a crossing between Concord and Cassady, both Vitis labrusca.

Historically, hybrid grape varieties produced insufficient tannins for red wine production, and usually displayed off-putting levels of acidity. The EU has severely restricted the commercial use of hybrid grapes in Europe.

In the last twenty years, there has been development of hybrids that are particularly cold weather tolerant and have shorter growing seasons. Much of this work continues at Cornell and the University of Minnesota.

Chamborcin (France, released 1963), Chardonel (USA, 1953), Crimson Cabernet (USA, 2002), Marquette (USA, 2006), Marechal Foch (France, 1910), Noiret (USA, 1973), Seyval Blanc (France, 1921), Traminette (USA, 1965) and Vignoles (France, 1930) are high quality northern hybrid grape cultivars that are grown in Indiana and Michigan.

In a recent post on his blog Intoxicology Report, Chris Kassel wrote: “In Michigan, wine folks often have conversations about our ‘signature’ grape, and although you’ve got Riesling camps and Pinot Gris camps and Cabernet Franc camps, there is no faction that casts in our lot with the hybrids.”

The industry focus has always been on familiar, sellable vinifera vartietals. In my opinion, the status of hybrid wines is more an issue of recognition and branding rather than taste profile or preference.

One strategy used by producers to introduce consumers to hybrids is blending these wines and giving them a proprietary name (avoiding the use of unfamilar hybrid names on the label).

An example is Satek Winery’s 2013 Kreibaum Bay Larry’s Luscious Red, which won double gold, best in class Chamborcin blend, at last year’s Indy International Wine Competition.

My advise is to not dismiss hybrid wines too quickly. Once tasted, you may get to know and enjoy them. I have.

Vignettes:

  • Vignoles is well suited for northern climates. Its bud break is unusually late; thus, frosts that ravage other budding vines won’t touch Vignoles. Dana Huber of Huber Orchard and Winery in southern Indiana described the experience of Vignoles wine as tasting “a fruit basket in a glass.” Huber’s 2012 Vignoles won “2013 Wine of the Year” at the Indy International Wine Competition.
  • There were about 2,000 wineries in the U.S. in 2000; today, there are more than 8,000, according to the industry publication Wines and Vines. At last count, Indiana has over 90.
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