Thursday, September 17, 2009


Hybrids vs. Vinifera

The great hybridizers of the world, D.E. Grant, Alexander Caywood, Robert Underhill, Maurice Baco, and Alfred Siebel all found a champion in Philip Wagner. Wagner, when he wasn’t editor of the newspaper the Baltimore Sun (a small job, no doubt), was a grape grower and winemaker. His writings and books influenced generations of winemakers and vineyard owners in the Northeast and many other states around the country save the west coast.

In the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, it was Wagner’s clarion call to the benefits of hybridized grapes that helped firmly re-establish wine making east of the Rockies. Hybrids were easier to grow – they were known for huge production, were prone to far fewer diseases than many other kinds of more traditional grapes, and they made passable wine.

On the down side, single varietals of hybrids named for their grapes featured names foreign to most wine buyers, such as Catawba, Niagara, Diamond, DeChaunac, Chelois, Seyval Blanc, Chancellor, and Baco Noir. It took generations of winemakers to understand how to mold many of these grapes into drinkable wines. And many of the wines were better suited to sweeter, more popular fare, rather than the dry, austere, classic wines most people of European descent were familiar with. Also, with the costs of running a small, boutique winery already high, the hybrids did not command the higher prices as their noble European cousins, thus insuring a volume driven business.

However, what made Wagner so popular, especially in the east, was that his tips, tricks, and techniques made it possible to make wine in regions that for centuries had frustrated those who tried it using noble grapes.

Then came along Dr. Konstantin Frank. Frank had come from Russia, where in cold climates, he had experience raising and caring for vinifera in extreme weather climates. He stated emphatically that it was indeed possible not only to grow vinifera grapes in these regions, but also to make good wines from them.

Vinifera had the benefit of having names that were well known to consumers, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc, and others. They made excellent wines that had been part of wine making traditions that stretched back centuries in Europe, they cellared well, cellared well, and commanded high prices.

While the Ivy Leaguers at Cornell snubbed him, offering him a job only as a janitor, Charles Fourinier of Gold Seal offered him a job. Frank proved his metal and his point. He made wonderful award winning wines at Gold Seal before taking the plunge in the Finger Lakes on his own. With the success of Frank’s Rieslings and Pinot Noirs, he established the rise of vinifera winemaking in the United States east of the Rockies. And his tips and techniques were improved upon by growers and winemakers like Herman J. Wiemer.

Then over a generation or two of time, many of Wagner’s followers vineyards were ripped out, and soon Frank’s vinifera were growing in their place. Catawbas and Niagara gave way to Chardonnay and Merlot.

The Old Debate Rises Anew

When I first started really tasting east coast wines I struggled with their choices of grapes, aware of the weather concerns and regional growing problems, but Chambourcin? Chancellor? Baco Noir? What were these grapes? I have to admit, however, that it struck me just as odd – who needs a Cabernet Franc from New Jersey (Silver Decoy and Hopewell Valley just cover your ears)?
I have even heard wine store owners themselves ask the question: "Without any disrespect, why do I need a new York Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon, when I can get them from California and Chile, at better prices?" Thus is the east challenged.

Today, there is a rebirth, however slight, in hybrids. And there is a resurgence in interest in heirloom grapes and the new strains of clones coming from Minnesota and to a lesser extent Cornell.

As new regions emerge, they look for grapes to claim as their own, bringing a signature to the region. California has claimed big reds like Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel, and Chardonnays. Washington and Oregon have claimed Pinot Noir. The Finger Lakes have Riesling, Gewurtztraminer and Cab Franc. Long Island, once known for chardonnay, now claims Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc. Even Virginia has established Norton and Viognier!

The northeast has long held Vidal Blanc as its own, especially in states such as Connecticut and Rhode Island and numerous other wineries. Sakonnet’s Vidal Blanc is as lovely a white table wine as I have had. The Hudson Valley is claiming Seyval Blanc as its signature white, but as of this writing, a consensus red wine of the region is still very much in the air…although Baco Noir seems to be making a case for itself.

But as the burgeoning regions vie for a competitive place on the shelves as well as at festivals, and for marketing of a region or AVA, what grapes are out there to claim? Frontenac makes an excellent port. Many wineries in Minnesoata and Michigan are racing toward it. Many are scrambling for Noiret, but which region will claim it for its own? Dornfelder? Few have risen to the bait.

But what else is still out there? Pinot clones? Gamay clones? Cab franc clones? This is where heirloom grapes and older hybrids come into play. Chelois? DeChaunac? Chancellor? Leon Millot? Chambourcin? Some of these grapes did not fare well against more classic varietals in the past, but winemaking on the east coast has also improved immensely. What could be made of those grapes now? Could one of those grapes, or a meritage of those grapes be the winning ticket for some winery? Some region?

Certainly I have tasted some good hybrids recently. Clove Hill in Pennsylvania makes a good Chancellor. Crooked Lake Chancellor 2005 from the Finger Lakes was very good. The same goes for Deer Run Winery Corot Noir 2007. Certainly, one of my favorite red wines on the entire east coast, Benmarl’s Baco Noir, is the biggest reason for some to take seriously hybrids again.

Will the bloggers and wine writers be open to serious red hybrids? Time will tell. They are curious if not snobbish. But curiosity is all one needs – for both the winemaker and the reviewer/customer. If the wine is good, eventually, they will come. If there is a commitment to making good wine, then reviews and word of mouth will help.

Certainly blends are an idea, most interesting to me is Thirsty Owl Lot 99 which is a blend of the hybrid Chancellor and of the vinifera Pinot Noir. I think it is one of the best red wines being made in the Finger Lakes today. Could this be a trend? Possibly. I like it.

There’s Tim Moore’s 2006 Change, from the Finger Lakes. It’s a dry red table wine made from Cabernet Franc and Corot Noir.

Of course there’s also Hunt Country’s Alchemy, a blend of “Old World and New World grape varieties -- all 100% Finger Lakes!” It actually contains Cabernet Franc 32%, Merlot 25%, Cabernet Sauvignon 24%, Noiret 19%

In New Jersey, there is Four JG's Chambourcin Riserva which is a delicate blend of Chambourcin and Cabernet Franc, which won awards in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Winemakers are looking for that new flavor. That new wine that will establish them.

As far away as Australia there is something like Bunjurgen Estate Vineyards Pearl Destiny, a 2007 Chambourcin Shiraz blend.

There are many more.

At Wineries Unlimited I saw the experimental stations choked with winemakers looking for new grapes to give them, and by extension their regions, an edge.

I have talked with numerous winemakers, through out the east coast, about finding that new grape. They are all searching. Searching for that one wine that will establish them, and their region.

And of course, one needs patience. Because really good red wines, especially in the east, come from vines at least 7 to 10 years of age, where the vines are digging their fingers deep into the dirt, and bringing up the real flavors of the terroir.

Today, the war between hybrid and vinifera still rages in the east. If anything, the pendulum is now swinging slightly back in Wagner’s favor, as winemakers look to fined new grapes and flavors to attract new attention by the industry and by consumers. Wagner would be amused. Frank would be horrified. Thus is wine…