This is part 4 of the What is Wine Made From series. If you are just joining me, you may want to start from the beginning of this series.
Although many grapes first cultivated in Europe have been successfully transferred to other regions throughout the world, some areas are not as favorable in climate and location. For these areas, hybridizers have created new grape varieties by putting together two individual varieties (called crossing) that show specific characteristics. For example, one variety might be known to make excellent wine, while the other grape is known for its cold hardiness. Another goal has been to develop hybrid grapes to have the ability to grow and ripen properly in short season areas and still retain some of the character of one of its world famous parents. Many hybrids are named after the hybridizer and often have a serial number associated with it, though not many winemakers use the serial number in referring to these grapes.
Hybrids are called different names: French Hybrid, American Hybrid, and French-American Hybrid. The terms, unfortunately, are loosely used and are often interchanged for various hybrids. There is not much consistency in the printed word.
Examples of hybrids include Marechal Foch, Couderc, DeChaunac, Vignoles (Ravat 51) and Baco Noir. These are all named for their hybridizer. From my experience, some hybrids that make the best wine include Vidal, Chambourcin, Vignoles, Traminette, Seyval, and Chardonel (in certain areas). Of the six, Chambourcin is red and the other five make white wine.
I have had quite a lot of experience with many of the hybrid grapes while making wine and have formed some strong opinions that others may not necessarily agree with. As far as the red hybrids go, I find many of them not to my liking. The character and flavors of those grapes are not what I am looking for in a good quality wine or, perhaps, it is my taste in wine. Many of the red hybrids, such as Baco Noir, Marechal Foch and Leon Millot tend to brown up easily and have what I consider to be some musky or earthy aromas. They can also have distinct herbaceaous or vegetative character.
While I have tasted some good wines from these grapes, they are few and far between. The truth is, there are varieties that are newer, such as Chambourcin, that have proven themselves as being more widely appreciated in the wine world by a larger number of people and the wine is, I believe, a bit easier to make well.
However, in the area of hybrids that make white wine, there are some real standouts. Vidal (also known as Vidal blanc) and Vignoles (Ravat 51) make delightful wines that exhibit nice tree fruit character, such as peaches and apricots…and even tropical fruit. Both can be made in styles from dry all the way to dessert. Generally they exhibit a lot more of their wonderful fruit character if they are finished with at least a touch of sweetness. While Chardonel (a cross between Chardonnay and Seyval) was developed to produce a Chardonnay-like wine in colder climates, there is a vast difference depending on where it is grown. In Ohio, the Chardonel tends to be a very high acid grape, no matter how ripe you get it, while in Missouri, I have tasted wonderful examples of this wine that were balanced and very much like Chardonnay. The newest kid on the block is the Traminette, a cross between Gewurztraminer and Seyval. It is a wonderful grape to grow and keeps its Gewurztraminer spiciness and grapefruit-like character, making it a super choice for many styles of wine, from dry to sweet. So, as you can see, there is a great selection of white hybrids to choose from if you don’t live in ideal climate conditions.