The Truth Behind Your Favorite Wines | Wine Enthusiast
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The Truth Behind Your Favorite Wines

Name a popular wine grape. Odds are, it’s the love child of two different varieties. Often, these parent grapes are ones you’ve heard of, like Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Noir. But a number of well-known varieties are mixes that involve more obscure grapes many wine lovers are yet to be familiar with.

In most cases, crosses and hybrids are bred for a specific intention, either to create a grape with better pest or disease resistance, or improved characteristics like flavor, color or yield.

A “crossed variety” means a grape is bred from two different Vitis vinifera varieties, which include the most widely known and popular winemaking grapes. Grapes referred to as hybrids, meanwhile, are a crossing of Vitis vinifera and North American Vitis labrusca or (even lesser-known) Vitis riparia grapes.

Many of the most widely grown European Vitis vinifera wine grapes are spontaneous field crosses, in which two species mated with the help of the birds and the bees, producing an entirely new variety.

A “crossed variety” means a grape is bred from two different Vitis vinifera varieties, which include the most widely known winemaking grapes. Hybrid grapes are a crossing of Vitis vinifera and North American Vitis labrusca or Vitis riparia.

A prime example of a well-known crossed grape is Cabernet Sauvignon, the offspring of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. Its half-sibling, Merlot, is the product of Cabernet Franc and the unheralded Magdeleine Noire des Charentes.

The terms “hybrids” and “crosses” are not interchangeable. While crossed grapes are grown throughout the world, hybrids were effectively prohibited in Europe for decades, though regulations have been relaxed somewhat.

Want to out-geek your savviest wine-loving friends? Brush up on your crosses and hybrids, and order a glass or bottle next time you’re out on the town.

Two Polaroid photo frames and heart for valentines day hanging on vintage background with vintage toning
When two grapes love each other very much… / Collage by Matthew Dimas

Grape Crosses

The Grape: Pinotage

The Parents: Pinot Noir and Cinsault

A cross of Pinot Noir and Cinsault, Pinotage was bred by Professor Abraham Perold in 1925 at Welgevallen experimental farm at the University of Stellenbosch. At the time, Cinsault was known in South Africa as “Hermitage,” which prompted the moniker Pinotage. Popular since the 1960s, it has been called South Africa’s signature grape.

Expect ripe black-fruit flavors with notes of smoke and earth. Pinotage is a difficult grape to work with, but in the right hands, it can be excellent. In addition to South Africa, look for bottlings from California, Virginia, Australia, New Zealand and Germany.

Notable Pinotage Producers in South Africa

Kanonkop, Beyerskloof, Simonsig, Bellingham, Graham Beck

The Grape: Marselan

The Parents: Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache

Named for the coastal French town of Marseillan, this cross between Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache was created by researcher Paul Truel in 1961, who hoped his experiment would produce large berries and higher yields. The crossing resulted in tiny berries, however, and the project was discontinued.

Thirty years later, researchers who sought disease resistant varieties gave Marselan a second look due to its ability to evade mold and mildew. It’s now grown in France’s Languedoc and the southern Rhône as well as Spain, Israel, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and China, where it’s become a winemaker favorite. With flavors of red plum and raspberry paired with moderate tannins, Marselan is a fairly easy-drinking red wine.

Notable Marselan Producers

France: Domaine Le Colombier, Domaine de Couron
Israel: Recanati, Jerusalem Wineries, Barkan
South America: Vinícola Salton  (Brazil), Bodega Garzón (Uruguay)

The Grape: Müller-Thurgau

The Parents: Riesling and Madeleine Royale

Müller-Thurgau was created in 1882 by Dr. Hermann Müller, from the Swiss canton of Thurgau, at the Geisenheim Grape Breeding Institute in the Rheingau. He crossed Riesling with an early ripening variety, Madeleine Royale, in the hopes to produce a grape with Riesling’s flavor and complexity that would ripen sooner in the season.

Today, it’s the second-most planted variety in Germany, and it’s also grown in Luxembourg, Austria, Switzerland, northern Italy, New Zealand, throughout Eastern Europe, and in Oregon and Washington State. Light in body with moderate acidity, Müller-Thurgau has flavors of apple, pear and citrus with soft floral notes.

Notable Müller-Thurgau Producers

Germany: Rainer Sauer, Karl Josef, Fritz Müller
Italy: Tiefenbrunner Schlosskellerei Turmhof, Kettmeir, Abbazia di Novacella
United States:  Kramer, Sokol Blosser, Whitetail Ridge, Henry Estate, Season Cellars

The Grape: Argaman

The Parents: Souzão and Carignan

Israeli researchers developed Argaman chiefly to add color to red blends. Its name is Hebrew for a shade of purple-crimson, but it’s often referred to incorrectly as an indigenous Israeli variety. It’s a cross between Portuguese grape Souzão, used mainly in Port production, and Mediterranean variety Carignan. Argaman was first used to make inexpensive blended wines. However, it’s now being vinified by a handful of producers to make high-quality varietal bottlings. Flavors include black cherry, plum and spice in a deeply colored red wine.

Notable Argaman Producers in Israel

Jezreel, Barkan

The Grape:  Petite Sirah

The Parents: Syrah and Peloursin

Petite Sirah is a cross of Peloursin and Syrah that was created in an experimental vineyard operated by Dr. François Durif at the University of Montpellier in the 1860s. Durif took proper credit for the resulting vine and named it after himself. It’s still called Durif in Australia, where it was originally used to create fortified, Port-style wines.

The largest plantings are now in the U.S., particularly California, where the name Petite Sirah took hold due to early confusion with the Syrah grape. It even has its own advocacy group in California, PS I Love You. Considered an up-and-coming variety in Israel, Petite Sirah is known for its teeth-staining color and strong flavors of blueberry, plum and spice.

Notable Petite Sirah Producers

California: Bogle, Spellbound, Ravenswood, Concannon, Steele, Fiddletown Cellars, V. Sattui, Stags’ Leap, Carlisle
Israel: Recanati, Montefiore, Dalton, Vitkin
Two different grapes in a locket
Hybrids, when two grapes from different sides of the tracks meet / Collage by Matthew Dimas

Grape Hybrids

The Grape: Baco Noir

The Parents: Folle Blanche (Vitis vinifera) and unknown species of Vitis riparia

Baco Noir was born in France at the turn of the 20th century, when schoolteacher-turned-grape breeder François Baco crossed Folle Blanche with Vitis riparia pollen originally thought to be from Grande Glabre, but later believed to be a mix from multiple vines. In the wake of the phylloxera epidemic, Baco Noir had a brief period of popularity in France until viticulturists started to graft American rootstocks onto their own Vitis vinifera vines.

It’s now grown throughout the U.S., including the Northeast, Midwest and Mid-Atlantic regions, as well as Nebraska, North Dakota, Montana, Oregon and eastern Canada. With flavors of cherry, raspberry and dried herbs, Baco Noir can be light and elegant like Pinot Noir, or deeply colored with cassis and cedar notes.

Notable Baco Noir Producers

New York: Hudson-Chatham, Benmarl, Bully Hill
Oregon: Melrose, Girardet
Ontario: Henry of Pelham Estate Winery

The Grape: Seyval Blanc

The Parents: Seibel 5656 and Rayon d’Or (Seibel 4986)

Developed by Bertille Seyve and Victor Villard around the 1920s, Seyval Blanc is a descendant of at least one Vitis vinifera grape, Aramon. Its parents, Seibel 5656 Rayon d’Or (Seibel 4986), are two of many varieties forged by French viticulturist and physician Albert Seibel, who sought to develop disease-resistant varieties by crossing American and European grapes. It thrives in cold regions like England, New York State, Virginia, Ohio, Oregon and eastern Canada. It’s known for citrus, apple and butterscotch flavors, and is made in dry, off-dry and fortified styles.

Notable Seyval Blanc Producers

New York: Knapp, Clinton
Virginia: Veramar Vineyard, Bogati

The Grape: Vidal

The Parents: Ugni Blanc (Trebbiano Toscano) and Rayon d’Or (Seibel 4986)

This grape was developed by and named for French viticulturist Jean-Louis Vidal in the 1930s. Its original raison d’être was for Cognac production, as one of its parents, Ugni Blanc, is the main grape used in Cognac.

But Vidal displayed an incredible tolerance for cold weather, and it’s found great success being used in ice wine and sweet, late-harvest wines. It’s grown throughout Canada and in states like New York, New Jersey, Virginia and Michigan. There are also plantings in Sweden—yes, Sweden—where it’s also used to make ice wine. Expect flavors of apricot, white peach and honey with soft floral notes.

Notable Vidal Producers in Canada

Ontario: Inniskillin, Reif Estate, Pillitteri, Peller
British Columbia: Mission Hill