Meet Vermont's Hybrid-Grape Guru

Meet Vermont's Hybrid-Grape Guru

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Meet Vermont's Hybrid-Grape Guru

From the foothills of Vermont's Green Mountains, La Garagista winemaker Deirdre Heekin is making a compelling case for long-ignored—and climate-resilient—grape varieties.

BY AMY ZAVATTO
PHOTOGRAPHS BY KATHERINE LENHART

Deirdre Heekin’s hybrids don’t require lithium-ion batteries, but they do run on their own rechargeable, natural power, drawn from the soils of her Vermont vineyards. Thanks to the La Garagista winemaker’s smart, intuitive farming and masterful cellar work, she’s become the good-will ambassador and guru of little-known hybrid grapes. Winemakers around the country now look to Heekin’s wines as signifiers of the potential of these unsung varieties.

For many years, Heekin and husband Caleb Barber operated Osteria Pane e Salute, a celebrated restaurant in their hometown of Woodstock, Vermont. He ran the kitchen and she ran the front of the house, including the impressive wine list, which was devoted to Italian indigenous grapes. Wanting a deeper understanding of her trade, Heekin began experimenting with making tiny batches of wine.

In the land of beer, cheese, and Ben & Jerry’s, she never dreamt she’d be able to do that with grapes grown right outside her own door—until she and Barber got wind of a local winery, Lincoln Peak, growing curious varieties called hybrids that could stand the extreme temperatures of their state. She bought some vines in 2007, planted them on their property in Barnard, Vermont, and never looked back.

“When I decided to start on this journey of winemaking, it seemed clear vinifera was not something that would survive in this climate, but there were these other interesting varieties that took hold and captivated my imagination,” says Heekin.

These hybrid grapevines are crossbreeds of European species, vitis vinifera (which includes pretty much every grape variety you know, from Sauvignon Blanc to Zinfandel), with native North American species labrusca or riparia (which often have names that sound like faraway lands, like St. Croix or Marquette). The crosses were initially made in the twentieth century to help vines withstand Mother Nature’s tricky maladies, such as humidity or extremely cold temperatures, as well as to resist disease pressure and even outsmart the destructive tendencies of certain predators. One of the most famous examples of the resilience of such vines: Saving the vineyards of Europe by grafting vinifera vines onto American hybrid rootstock when a tiny little louse called phylloxera nearly wiped out the wine world as we know it. (Of course, we Americans were the ones who introduced the pest to Europe in the mid-1800s, so it was the least we could do.)

Up until Heekin and a few other bold believers began to rethink and reimagine the grapes’ vinous potential, hybrids held the rep of workhorse problem-solvers, but didn’t garner accolades for their aroma and flavor. They were generally thought of as farmstand swill.

“When I started to work with [hybrids] and investigate what they tasted like and what they were capable of, I was fascinated by what they had to say about Vermont and the Northeast.”

Thanks to Heekin’s work, more producers are starting to look at hybrids for both their beauty and their brawn as the impacts of climate change become ever more pressing.

“I know grape breeders are thinking about the future and what grapes will need in their DNA to survive what’s coming down the pike,” Heekin says. “[Classic] wine growing regions are changing. Dry parts of Spain, for instance, are now seeing a lot more rain and getting a lot more fungal disease than before. People in those climates don’t know what to do. They are having to adapt and learn a new paradigm.”

But if adaptation leads to results like Heekin’s nervy, refreshing, place-rooted wines, adaptation isn’t looking so terrible. At the crux of her work with these vines is their ability to uniquely express the place she loves, as well as withstand its sometimes unforgiving climate. Since 2007, the unapologetically all-hybrid, little-winery-that-could in Barnard, Vermont, has farmed varieties like La Crescent, Marquette, Frontenac Gris, Blanc, and Noir, Brianna, and St. Croix on four vineyards—two they own, and two they lease.

“When I started to work with them and investigate what they tasted like and what they were capable of,” Heekin says, “I was fascinated by what they had to say about Vermont and the Northeast.”

“[Classic] wine growing regions are changing ... People in those climates don’t know what to do. They are having to adapt and learn a new paradigm.”

Over the last 15 vintages, a lot of that conversation has happened in the vineyard, where Heekin has learned to observe and tune-in to the intricacies of what the vines need. For example, she’s come to trust the sturdy nature of Brianna, and rather than picking all the grapes at once, she’ll make several passes through the vines during harvest in order to catch individual bunches at ideal ripeness.

In 2022, for instance, the first pick for Brianna took place in early September in tight rows where the bunches were tight-fisted, and another six weeks later when in the un-pruned rows, which are much looser and able to withstand Vermont’s sometimes formidable humidity. The sugar stays relatively low and consistent over that six-week period of time, keeping the fruit and acidity fresh, but other phenolic elements ripen in interesting ways, says Heekin. Through carefully minding her vines and allowing them the freedom to develop in ways that make sense for individual hybrid plantings, Heekin has yielded consistent expressiveness and depth in her wines.

But she’s also found that these grapevines tend to evolve over time, too. There's a real benefit to paying close attention. “Hybrids aren’t vinifera and don’t act like it, but I do find with older vines we do see physiological changes that are like vinifera,” she says. Like how certain hybrid vines start to take on different growth patterns as the years wane on. It can mean a plot of vines that used to produce uneven clusters might eventually find its groove and ripen in a more balanced way.

Heekin works with assistant winemaker Camila Carrillo who, for the last few years, has experimented with making ciders and wines from hybrids under her own label, La Montañuela.

In the cellar, Heekin’s open-minded grape empathy and attention has given a spotlight to the more nuanced potential of hybrids. Her Ci Confonde, for example, is a mind-bending red pét-nat made from Marquette, its bubbles lifting up just-picked raspberries and juicy plums, with a bitterness (a signature of the grape) that keeps it from going anywhere near the jam aisle. And then there are her sparkling co-ferments (in this case, hybrids blended with wild and cultivated fruit), like her Fleurine, a bubbly made in the Champagne method that combines Frontenac Gris with 29 different apple varieties from their own orchard. She’s found that white varieties like La Crescent and Frontenac Gris and reds like Marquette can work beautifully oxidative styles, like skin-fermented orange wines and even a flor-aged sherry-style project she began in 2018 with assistant winemaker Camila Carrillo. (For the last few years, Carrillo has also been making her own ciders and wines from hybrids under the La Montañuela label, with Heekin as her mentor.)

“Hybrids aren’t bred in a petri dish; they’re bred by hand,” says Heekin. “What I’ve learned from the producers I love is to let the vine speak for itself, to stay out of its way, and do what you can to support it and the wine. Let it be what it wants.”

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