The future of winemaking is hybrid


Why American winemakers are looking for non-vitis vinifera grapes

Kathleen willcox

There will always be a place for conventionally vitis vinifera product. But, in truth, more and more influential producers and consumers are looking for something with a little more soul and a lot more benefit.

Hybrids, especially in the difficult wine-growing area of ​​the east coast, have become ascendant for several reasons.

First, more and more consumers are looking for unconventional wines from organic farming. IWSR predicts that by 2023, approximately 976 million bottles of organic wine will be consumed, up 34% from 720 million in 2018.

Young wine lovers are especially keen to find wines made from sustainably grown grapes, according to the latest Silicon Valley Bank Wine Industry and Trends Report, which said “sustainability issues , health and environment ”, alongside concerns about“ social justice, equity and diversity, ”guide the purchasing decisions of Millennials and Gen Z.

Unfortunately more and more classic vitis vinifera in some areas of the east coast is almost impossible without atomizing them with chemicals.

Winter at Shelburne Winery in Shelburne, Vermont / Courtesy Shelburne Vineyard
Winter at Shelburne Winery in Shelburne, Vermont / Courtesy Shelburne Vineyard

But grow hybrids pretty much all over is probably easier. And more ecological.

Fortunately, the pioneering work of scientists and early users of non-vinifera grapes has helped spawn a new generation of cultivators, producers and consumers who embrace them.

Hybrid science

The programs at Cornell University and the University of Minnesota have created thousands of new varieties of grapes designed to fight disease and climate challenges. The grapes resulting from these programs are typically crosses between so-called European grapes. vinifera, and others native to North America and Asia, such as riparia, labrusca and rotondifolia.

Cornell has been working on the development of hybrid grapes for over 100 years.

“Genetic sequencing technology has come a long way, and over the past 10 years we have been able to use sequencing to quickly determine cold hardiness and disease resistance,” says Bruce Reisch, professor specializing in breeding. Vine. He joined Cornell in 1980, and since then has released 10 new wine grapes and four seedless table grapes. He explains that they don’t genetically modify grapes, but just determine which ones will thrive in harsh conditions and look for the most promising hybrids.

For wineries like Shelburne Vineyard in the Champlain Valley, where winters are harsh, springs rainy and summers wet, the work of scientists like Reisch is nothing short of essential.

“Shelburne has been planting hybrids since 1998, and although they pioneered the cultivation of hybrid grapes in Vermont, we were all delighted to see how the market has grown and grown,” says winemaker Ethan Joseph, who joined Shelburne in 2008. “We” I’ve learned how important site selection, careful vineyard management and low-intervention winemaking is. We treat our hybrids with as much care and thoughtfulness as other growers treat their vitis vinifera, and this allowed the terroir and the best qualities of these grapes to shine.

Joseph’s ultimate goal is to eliminate the use of chemicals, a feat he said would be “impossible” if they all pushed vitis vinifera. He is most excited about Marquette (a hybrid of Pinot Noir with hints of cherry, pepper and summer berries), Louise Swenson (a white hybrid with acidity and floral notes) and La Crescent (a hybrid of white wine with notes of apricot, citrus, and peach).

In 2017, Shelburne came out on a limb and aggressively pushed into the natural and hybrid wine space with Iapetus. “This line has skyrocketed,” notes Joseph. “Now that represents about 40% of our annual number of 5,000 cases. “

Convince the consumer

"Check all the boxes," a hybrid picket by Wild Arc Farms / Courtesy of Wild Arc Farms
“Checking All the Boxes”, a hybrid blend of Wild Arc Farms / Courtesy of Wild Arc Farms

Colleen Hardy, co-owner of Living Roots Wine Co. in Finger Lakes and Adelaide, agrees. She started Living Roots in 2016, in partnership with her South Australian winemaker husband Sebastian, as a sort of global wine experiment.

“We wanted to use grapes from both regions which are above all adapted to the climate,” explains Sebastian Hardy. “In the Finger Lakes, that means Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer, but also Aromella, Arendell, Rougeon, Regent and Petit Pearl. The couple, who sell 85% of their production from their tasting room, have no trouble selling their hybrid and hybrid by hand –vitis vinifera blended wines. “Once we tell visitors about it. “

Colleen Hardy says finding high-quality hybrids is up to the grower. “We offer to pay more if they grow it with the same care we expect with vinifera, and do not spray, ”she said

“In the Hudson Valley, especially if you want to grow organically, hybrids are needed,” says Todd Cavallo, who founded Wild Arc Farm in Pine Bush, NY with his wife Crystal. “We lost our entire harvest of Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir in 2018. We replanted part of the Pinot Noir, but the rest we planted hybrids.

However, the vineyard at the one acre estate of Wild Arc is primarily experimental; they source most of their grapes.

“We are working with other like-minded producers who want hybrid grapes from organic farming,” Cavallo explains. “A lot of [hybrids] were grown for bulk wines, but we promise producers that if they change their farming practices, we’ll pay more.

By working cooperatively, Cavallo and others hope they can simultaneously increase the value of hybrid fruits and change market perception.

Philadelphia-based Alexandra Cherniavsky, sommelier and consultant who finds distribution for wineries in restaurants, has seen the market for hybrid wines change firsthand. But she believes there’s still a long way to go before restaurants are ready to open their lists to hybrids.

“Once people try wines from hybrid grapes, they’re a lot more open,” she says. “They sell well in tasting rooms, where the winemaking team can explain their history and provide context.”

But if they want to take off, they have to appear on more restaurant listings. “Wineries should approach local restaurants armed with the educational materials and context they provide in the tasting room. If they know how to explain them to diners, they’ll be much more likely to put them on the list, ”explains Cherniavsky.

Not just for harsh climates

The East Coast is far from the only place where hybrids are found. At Bells Up Winery in Newberg, Oregon, winemaker Dave Specter says their Seyval Blanc is grown with fewer chemicals than his. vitis vinifera. And, the wines have achieved “cult status”, selling each year.

“We are the only Seyval Blanc plantation in the Willamette Valley, and only the second in Oregon. It’s not only part of our plan to diversify our vineyards and enable us to respond to climate change, but also part of our larger effort to attract younger, more adventurous consumers, ”he says.

Bells Up Winery Seyval Blanc / Courtesy of Bells Up Winery

A parallel movement, PIWI, is taking place in Europe, although, as Reisch explains, it is slightly different.

“Most of Europe doesn’t have the harsh winters we experience here,” he says. “The hybrid programs out there are inherently very different, as their grapes are crossed for the purpose of resisting different disease and weather pressures. “

Some regions have not yet opened the door to hybrids; they are banned in France in appellation wines, but for a certain type of American winemaker – and consumer – this kind of ban only makes them more enchanting.


Kathleen willcox

Kathleen Willcox writes about wine, food and culture from her home in Saratoga Springs, NY. She has a keen interest in sustainability issues and ethical food and beverage manufacturing. His work appears regularly in Wine finder, Wine lover, and many other publications. Kathleen has also co-authored a book titled Hudson Valley wine: a story of taste and land, which was published in 2017. Follow her wine explorations on Instagram at @kathleenwillcox


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