Why Hybrid Grapes Could Be the Future of Wine | Wine Enthusiast
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Why Hybrid Grapes Could Be the Future of Wine

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The National Weather Service began recording temperature across the U.S. in 1901. The year 2016 was the warmest, followed by 2020. This past decade was the warmest 10-year span on record.

Vintage write-ups have been filled with notes of extremes in addition to record-breaking heat: drought, humidity, fires. Grape farmers and winemakers across regions are faced with the task of growing quality fruit and making sound wine in unprecedented conditions.

In 2021, all around California, grape farmers prepared for a quick harvest after a year of extreme heat, hoping to pick grapes with adequate acid. Over in the Northeast, a steady rise in temperature has led to humidity and increased disease pressure.

Terroir is tied to more than just soil, flora and fauna. It is the taste of the climatic condition in which the grapes were grown. Fine-tuned palates can detect the nuances among wines grown on the same site in a cool, hot, wet or dry season.

As the climate changes, the fragile nature of Vitis vinifera is highlighted and the boundaries of ideal growing regions are being pushed. Some U.S. growers—and potentially some in the European Union, which recently approved their use—are looking to hybrid grapes and their non-vinifera parents as more stable vehicles not just to translate their terroir, but also to respect the environment.

Organic and Sustainable Practices

An illustration of grapes
Illustration by Various Media

Timothy Martinson is a senior extension associate for the Viticulture and Enology program at Cornell University. He is also an outreach coordinator for VitisGen2, an effort that spans institutions. Part of his work is to identify genetic markers for marker-assisted selection when considering parentage for hybrid grapes.

“The key difficulties in the vineyard due to climate change are a change in rainfall, an increase in temperature and disease pressure,” says Martinson.

He explains an increase in temperature on the West Coast has restricted water access and accelerated wildfires. Growing areas on the East Coast and pockets of the Midwest, on the other hand, have experienced an increase of rainfall that, in combination with overall higher temperatures, has led to elevated levels of humidity.

“A combo of high humidity and higher temps drive these late-season rots,” says Martinson. “Warmer nights extending into ripening season change the character of fruit and lead to more late-season disease pressure like powdery mildew, downy mildew, Phomopsis, Botrytis and fruit rots. Long-term, we need to move to different varieties. A key gap in some sustainability programs is that we are starting with plants that are highly susceptible to these diseases.”

Managing these diseases becomes an even bigger challenge when you consider that some of the means to do so carry their own dangers. Fungicides and herbicides can disrupt the healthy ecosystems around the vineyards and harm the workers handling the chemicals. Even organic sprays made from copper sulfate can leach into the ground.

That means many growers are looking for other ways to deal with these conditions.

“All major European varieties did not evolve with powdery mildew, downy mildew or Phomopsis as a pathogen,” says Martinson. “In contrast, we have about 10–15 species native to U.S., grapes that coevolved with these diseases so they formed resistance.”

And plants with this sort of resistance offer another benefit: Organic practices of not churning the soil, or no-till farming, and planting cover crops can offset the carbon emissions of the vineyard. But these practices are easiest to impart when the vines are well suited to their growing environment, needing less intervention in the soil.

“I was seeing if there was a way to marry this idea of growing plants that coevolved—can you grow with less resources, and is that closer to representing the actual region?” says Matt Niess, the owner and winemaker of North American Press, which farms hybrid and native grapes in various regions across California. “I started farming this old-vine Baco Noir vineyard. Eventually Radio-Coteau farm began looking for someone to take over farming. That’s when it really [sunk] in that this is something worth pursuing. These grapes make great wine, and you don’t have to spray. After I saw it firsthand, hand-farming these vines, I realized I don’t have to be out here every week with these vines, and I can use less chemicals.”

While folks like Martinson and institutions like Cornell University, University of Minnesota and University of California, Davis, are doing the work of creating new hybrids to mitigate the effects of climate change in the vineyard, some are inspired by the grapes that have continually survived on their own.

“No one is growing grapes from happenstance seedlings, letting a vineyard become what it could become, telling the full story of these grapes,” says Chris Renfro, founder of the 280 Project in San Francisco, which focuses on bringing diversity to the wine industry through community education, urban farming, foraging and tending to old vineyards. “What about stuff that exists and survives? It’s weird how clean vineyards are, but then we think about our wooded areas and [their] trash. Polluted. Is something here already thriving not as valuable? Is that why there is no love for native vines and Native people?”

Hybrids in Practice

“It feels like it’s every other year,” says Camila Carrillo, who was raised in Vermont and has been farming hybrids in the state since 2017 with La Garagista and recently purchased a piece of land for her own wine label. La Montañuela is focused on making oxidative wines from rasinated grapes. She notes that “2020 was basically a drought, and the grapes were thriving. This year, 2021, it’s very rainy and we have lower yields.

“I have to start thinking how to have a long-term winemaking and farming career,” she continues. “I have to be really careful about what I plant. We know that these varieties can be great and can change; I won’t panic if they raisinate.”

Growers in California are more focused on drought.

“I’ve always had an interest in native California plants where water is such a scarce and precious resource,” says Niess. “So what if you just planted these hybrids that already have drought tolerance?”

In the course of researching, he learned that much of the old-vine Pais that has been growing in California had naturally crossed with native grape Californica. It has some measure of natural drought resistance, or else it wouldn’t have survived. He wonders why, in an industry fixated on terroir and sustainability, native vines that have evolved with the land and hybrids on their own roots aren’t a bigger part of the conversation.

“A lot of winemakers champion and swear that own-roots make better quality wine,” says Niess. “What if you could get the drought tolerance with added benefit of disease resistance so you don’t have to spray it? They are just more robust to handle these climatic extremes.”

He cites a number of grapes that show promise for California planting.

Brilliant was bred by T.V. Munson, with vines that are drought tolerant and fruit that prefers heat. It makes an outstanding fruity, floral-perfumed rosé.

Catawba is another pink grape that preserves acidity during the growing season.

Herbemont has a balanced chemistry similar to European wine grapes and requires a longer growing season, yet it also has good drought tolerance.

Traminette is a newer hybrid that Niess says is totally being overlooked for California, particularly cooler regions. It has excellent resistance to powdery mildew. As the name suggests, it has a Gewürztraminer parent and carries with it a similar flavor profile.

Villard Blanc is a white grape that should do well in limestone soils and prefers a longer growing season to fully ripen.

La Crosse can hold on to its acidity and would make a great dry wine in cooler wine growing regions of the West Coast.

Nitodal is a fascinating grape in the vineyard and in the winery. It shows solid mildew resistance and may have good drought tolerance. It makes a very intense aromatic red wine chock-full of color and grippy tannin.

In the Midwest, drought tolerance is less of a concern than mildew resistance.

“We have enough water, a lot of water, too much water, leading to mildew,” says Erin Rasmussen, who grew up in Wisconsin and founded American Wine Project as a way to make her way back to the Midwest while working in wine, after stints in Napa and New Zealand. She makes wine from grapes grown in the colder climates of Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

“We have been getting more intense storm systems and unpredictable shoulder seasons,” she says. “This year we got hit with Memorial Day frost during bloom.”

Rasmussen has a particular fondness for King of the North, St. Pepin and La Crescent.

“I am excited about these old, forgotten grapes like Maréchal Foch and older hybrids,” she says.

In Vermont, Carrillo has her own discoveries in terms of grapes that can not only withstand the damp, but can do so with minimal intervention.

“Petite Pearl doesn’t need spraying,” she says. “If you keep up with organic practices and take care of vineyard and planting cover crops and helping build an ecosystem, they become pretty self-sustaining. Pinot Noir’s grandson, Marquette, doesn’t do well in wet and humid seasons. We have had to pay extra attention to it in the rainy season. We have to keep planting in mind. Where we want to plant on property. Brianna is great but can be susceptible to sour rot.”

Renfro points out that diversifying our grapes, taking care of our land and aiming to use no inputs and fewer resources, results in better wine.

“I feel like I come from wanting to take care of the land,” he says. “Like George Washington Carver wanting to be part of the land. All of these things touch each other at some point in time. We just stop it as humans. Everything around us is connected and talks to us. Listen to your vineyard. Terroir for me is the world we live in, the day to day, what the season is like, what that life is like.”

This article originally appeared in the March/April issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!

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