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Why Hybrid Grapes Matter

The word “hybrid” might bring images of high-tech, fuel-­saving cars to mind, but hybrid grapes are cold-hardy, mixed-species offerings that ­provide a unique expression of American terroir. Winemaker Deirdre Heekin talks about ­organically farming 15 acres of hybrid grapes in the foothills of the Green Mountains in Barnard, Vermont.

What exactly is a hybrid?

Deirdre Heekin: A hybrid, as we know, is a cold-hearty cross made by a horticulturist in the nursery ­using the native, American, indigenous wild material with different kinds of vinifera. It’s a collaboration between man and nature.

The native labrusca and riparia grapes didn’t make great wine, but blending the cell structure [of different species] produced grapes that would be cold hearty, adaptive to northern climates, but produce beautiful wine. That was the imperative—to breed something that would do that.

How are they different from “regular” wine grapes like Chardonnay?

DH: They grow semirecumbently, like an umbrella. They grow up and out. They are ­naturally resistant to several disease ­problems in the Northeast, so, in my mind, it’s a no ­brainer that you’d want to take advantage of that and work organically. And that’s never easy for anyone or any variety, but we’ve got a little edge that’s part of their natural resistance and their genetic history.

Deirdre Heekin

Why did you take a chance on hybrids?

DH: I find the hybrids and the wine coming from them so interesting and so exciting [that] I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything. I’d started [in 2007] planting Riesling and Blaufränkisch, I just pulled it all out this last summer. My background is in Italian indigenous varieties. That’s my specialty, so I love that weird regional stuff. For me, the hybrids are just that: regional varieties that speak of Vermont and go well with the kinds of foods we can grow and the kind of things we cook in the restaurant [Osteria Pane e Salute]. I like that the hybrids are uniquely American—they’re a melting pot. They’re like all of us.

What hybrid grapes do you use?

DH: Marquette, La Crescent, Frontenac Gris, Frontenac Noir, Frontenac Blanc, Brianna and St. Croix. We started planting in 2007 with 100 vines. Probably we have 1,000 vines by now. We’re getting ready to plant another acre on our 8¼ [acre] home vineyard, and now we’re leasing a vineyard across the street. I’m thinking of experimenting with a couple of things—I’m enamored with Baco Noir.

Are there specific flavor benchmarks or standards you try to tease out when working with hybrids?

DH: I think we’re in a unique situation with hybrids because there is no standard, so you can really examine terroir without the baggage of standards. We grow La Crescent in all three vineyards, and I can tell which one it is when I taste it. I taste slate and limestone from Vergenne; florality from West Addison. In the home vineyard, it’s a totally different kind of minerality and stone fruit. It’s been fascinating. Hybrids are very great telecasters for terroir. For me, that’s super exciting.