What are Hybrid Grapes? - Beyond Vitis Vinifera

Posted by Holly Berrigan on

All About Hybrid Grapes

As you dive deeper into the natural wine world you might start to see the term hybrid popping up when discussing grapes used in a wine, piquette, or vinous cider. In this blog we seek to outline what they are, where they’re most common to find, and why you’ll likely continue to see them popping up in the natural wine scene for the foreseeable future.

What are hybrid grapes?

example of hybrid grape - cabernet sauvignon

Starting with the most technical definition, a hybrid grape is basically the offspring of two or more other grape varietals made either naturally or via a lab. This means that in the vitis vinifera world (the one we are used to drinking in) grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon (a natural cross) came from Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. Many of these hybrids are well-known and established in the wine world and we do not hear about too many new ones coming on the scene.

With that in mind, if we are focusing more on today’s usage, you will see the term used far more often for other forms of vitis species like vitis labrusca and vitis riparia. In more recent decades many more examples of hybrid grape creation, mostly via lab, have created new and stronger varietals, particularly for cold weather climates.

Though, it should be noted that when these grapes are created in a lab, it is not like creating a genetically modified grape, but rather just recreating a natural process in a lab. One fun example of a mix of this is the development of Frontenac and Frontenac Gris. Frontenac was initially created at the University of Minnesota and then naturally mutated into Frontenac Gris.

It should be noted that for the rest of this article, when I refer to hybrids I will be referring to the non vitis-vinifera version of them to avoid any confusion. 

Where can you find hybrid grapes?

map of hybrid grapes across north america

As previously mentioned, hybrid grapes are most popular for cold regions due to hardiness, but there are several more trends beyond that. Because Europe has a much longer winemaking history with vitis vinifera, it is quite uncommon to see them grown in traditional wine regions. France, in fact, has a kind of ban on them and any producer using them cannot use the appellation name on the bottle.

The US is known to be a bit of a “wild west” for winemaking since the beginning, and we are thus seeing the most use of hybrids here with most concentrations in the Northeast and Midwest. More established wine areas in the US, like Oregon and California, have generally turned up their nose at the notion of them, but small amounts of plantings are starting to seep their way into the PacWest and we expect to see that trend continue.

Just above them in Canada, hybrids have been adopted as a great option for winemaking on both coasts and in the Niagara region. If you really look for them, you can likely find hybrid grapes being used in every state in the US (yes, every state in the US makes wine!) but we’ve only noted those that are seeing significant usage in our map above.

What are the most common hybrid grapes?

hybrid grapes on vines

If you’ve had a wine from Northern New York or Vermont recently you’ve likely had a wine with hybrid grapes! Below are four that you are most likely to see. But, if you would like a better understanding of all the types of hybrid grapes this is a great resource for them.

Frontenac

With a Blanc, Gris and Noir version of this grape, all are very popular in Vermont and Minnesota. You will see a lot of pet-nats made with the noir version, which makes a lot of sense, as it is typically very acidic and low in tannin.

Seyval Blanc

A white grape made very popular in Canada and the midwest in the United States with some even planted in England! We’ve seen it used to make delicious sparkling wines and have commonly seen it blended with Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling.

Marquette

This grape typically makes a still red wine and is considered by many to be the grandchild of Pinot Noir but in our experience it certainly has little more heft than its grandparent. It is very common to see it planted in Vermont and New York.

Vidal Blanc

A popular choice for ice wine in Canada, we’ve also seen it used often in piquette winemaking in the US as it has high acidity and lots of fruit. It has a thick outer skin that makes it incredibly cold hardy and disease resistant, particularly to fungal disease.

Other grape species you are likely to run into are: La Crescent, Briana (famous for sometimes being foxy, or tasting like Welch's grape juice), and red grape Baco Noir.

Why are hybrid grapes becoming more popular?

wines made with hybrid grapes

Aside from the obvious advantages of more easily growing in cold climates, there are a few other reasons we speculate hybrids are becoming more popular currently.

The rise of wine-adjacent drinks

With the rise of verjus, vinous ciders and piquettes, it is more common to see hybrid grapes used as, in particular for the case for ciders, they are typically produced in colder climates.

The rise of natural/organic wine

Since hybrids are made to be heartier than their counterparts, it is logical to follow that they perform better in organic viticulture and natural winemaking and thus lend themselves to be a great option for consumers looking for natural options.

Greater interest in wine education

Particularly since COVID, the average consumer has taken a greater interest in understanding what they are consuming and all of us were on at least one wine happy hour. This greater access to time sparked a much larger group of people to research more and want to try new things in their wine consumption.

Conclusions

Hybrid is a term we are likely to continue hearing in the wine world, and especially in the natural wine world in the upcoming years. Producers like La Garagista, Old Westminster, and Pinard et Fils are showing the world that these grapes deserve respect and a higher price point. We are very excited to see the growth of this category and are incredibly curious to see how the spread of these hybrids progresses outside of North America! 

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