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Grape Hybrids - French Hybrids

At some point in each person's wine drinking lifetime, talk will turn from the more traditional grapes such as Chardonnay and Zinfandel. Someone will mention a Baco Noir as going wonderfully with BBQ. They will comment casually that these are French Hybrids, or American Hybrids. What exactly is a hybrid, and what does that mean for the wine's flavor?

First, a comment on wine grapes in general. Grapevines are traditionally planted by making cuttings of existing plants. This means that Chardonnay vines growing in Napa Valley are actually from the same plant as the Chardonnay growing in Chablis, France. This also means these plants are in essence the same plant as was growing 500 years ago, creating wines for French nobility. These aren't daughter plants, or plants grown from seeds from a common ancestor. It is actually same physical plant in most cases.

Sure, sometimes mutations happen. As a plant grows, its cells might subtly change. Pinot Noir is known for this. If a branch grows with this new mutation, a vine grown from that branch will be slightly different from the vine it was taken from. In general, though, a Chardonnay will produce wine of X flavor, have grapes of Y shape, and require Z conditions to grow properly.

What about the areas of the world where typical grapes do not grow well? This is where the development of hybrids come in - customizing combination of grapes to grow delicious wine even in not-perfect conditions.

In the botanical world, a hybrid is any cross between two species of plant. Hybrids can happen naturally, if two plants cross-pollinate and the resulting offspring is found and cultivated. However, most hybrids in the wine world happen after experimentation. Vine experts try to combine the great flavor of one grape with the heartiness of another, and find a vine that will grow where grapes normally might not flourish.

American Hybrids

American hybrids were developed mostly during the 19th century, mixing the native American grapes with the more flavorful French and Italian grape varieties. Most native American grapes are found by winemakers to not make palatable wines. The two key exceptions are the Concord and Scuppernong grapes. Still, winemakers tried, and also tried planting imported grapevines to see if they would grow.

While the imported vines rarely survived more than a year, they did hang around long enough to cause some interaction with the native grapevines. The Alexander grape was a product of accidental cross-pollination discovered in Virginia. Other hybrids which happily sprang into being naturally after this were the Catawba, Delaware, and Isabella. Once scientists realized what was going on, they began purposefully developing hybrids. These included the Niagara and Diamond.

French Hybrids

The French and Europeans looked down on hybrids as being naturally inferior to their centuries-old grape varieties. However, when the phylloxera louse began devastating their vineyards in the late 19th century, they began to try just about anything in order to save their vineyards. Creating pest-resistant hybrids was one path they took.

The hybrids are generally more hearty, and also produce more fruit than native European grapevines. Even so, many French laws forbid their use in classic wines for reasons of tradition. Newer wine regions, not operating under such restrictions, use the French hybrids freely because of their fine flavors and easy growing conditions. French hybrids are often named after their creators, such as Francois Baco and Jean-Louis Vidal. Some well known French hybrids are Seyval Blanc, Vidal Blanc, and Baco Noir.

So, it's a Hybrid...

Does it really matter if a grape is a hybrid or not? Not to the average wine drinker. The hybrids ensure that wine regions that might normally not be able to grow grapes can now create delicious wines. Traditional areas will continue to make wines with traditional grapes, and new wineries can experiment with vines that grow well in their non-ideal climates. Try some, and see what you think!

Hybrid vs Cross vs Blend

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