Tuesday, November 10, 2009


I hear it all the time – as a wine taster and a winemaker – don’t grow hybrids, don’t make hybrid wines, don’t drink hybrid wines. Concentrate on the noble grapes. Pardon my French, but, Bullshit!

My favorite grape is a relatively new hybrid, “the product of a chance crossing between Cabernet franc and Sauvignon blanc during the 17th century in southwestern France. Its popularity is often attributed to its ease of cultivation - the grapes have thick skins and the vines are hardy and resistant to rot and frost - and to its consistent presentation of structure and flavors which express the typical character of the variety. Familiarity and ease of pronunciation have helped to sell [wine from this grape] to consumers, even when from unfamiliar wine regions. Its widespread popularity has also contributed to criticism of the grape as a "colonizer" that takes over wine regions at the expense of native grape varieties.”

That sounds a lot like a pitch from Cornell or Minnesota we hear every winter at the trade shows and agricultural extension courses. And can you imagine selling this varietal in the 1700s and 1800s. “Try it, Sire. It’s something a little different. It’s called a hybrid, your highness.” Yeah, right. Still it took our ‘Little Engine That Could’ almost 200 years to catch on.

Of course, we’re talking about Cabernet Sauvignon.

Cab Sav makes an excellent wine. I myself have paid more money than I care to admit, for a single bottle of the stuff, handled by the right people. I’m a sucker for those big Robert Parker fruit bombs. Oh that I only had enough money to buy a case or two or Harlan or a high end Shafer Hillside Select. There is nothing better than a bottle of Cakebread Cabernet Sauvignon. Wow! Of course, I love Amarone as well, so my big wine credentials are solid.

But what I am tired of hearing about is all this noble rot! I have heard from customers in the tasting room and from liquor store owners – ‘Forget the hybrids, kid, people don’t know what they are, they never heard of them. Concentrate on the big wines.’ For the record I am 46 years of age. Cabernet Sauvignon is not a Noble Grape – it is not a Titan. It is a hybrid. A mutt! And what’s wrong with being a mutt? Is there anything more American than a mutt?

What’s my point? Don’t get hung up on the name. I love Baco Noir and Chelois. I’ve recently fallen in love with a series of old, discarded hybrids, and other heirloom varietals. As a burgeoning region, New York cannot make a Cakebread nor a Harlan nor a Shafer. We don’t have enough dry hot sunny days to get the grapes to that concentrated level. But we can make an excellent Cab Sav (witness Richard Olsen-Harbich’s 90 from Wine Spectator for his 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon). Burgeoning wine regions have to find their signature grape.

There is definitely a hybrid bias out there. How many Baco Noirs are reviewed by the New York Times? When’s the last time The Wall Street Journal wrote up a Chancellor? Has your local store segmented out all the Chambourcin for you yet? A good wine is a good wine. Magazines and stores fear hybrids like Dracula. And so do wine drinkers. It’s still a hand-sell to get wine drinkers to try Chelois. Once they try it, they love it.

And I don’t want to hear that “foxy” crap. More French – bullshit! Winemakers who are inexperienced with their grapes, or who are inept, make foxy wines. Bad wines are bad wines. Yell "Tripe!" and move on to the next wine. Don't tar and feather the grape! I’ve tasted clunkers all over the world including France, Italy, and Chile (non in Spain, by the way). Some hybrid wines do not benefit from extended time on the skins. Baco gets to tasting like a Firestone tire. DeChaunac tastes like Lavoris. Chambourcin can taste like a light Cabernet Franc…or an inescapable nightmare. Foxiness means there’s a mistake in the winemaker’s process. And another question - Why is foxiness unacceptable when the grassiness or lead pencil in Cab Franc is desirable? You like lead pencil? I’ll buy you a box of No. 2’s for your birthday. Like grassy? Next time I cut the lawn I’ll call you. Me? I’d like a little well-handled fruit with my meal.

Kevin Zraly, the great wine educator, author of “The Windows on the World Wine Course” says that we are currently living in the Golden Age of Wine. Wine has never been more widely made, nor in such quantity nor quality. What better time to try new grapes? I whole heartedly agree!

Have you ever tasted Benmarl’s Baco Noir? Warwick Valley’s Black Dirt? Stoutridge’s Chancellor?

So next time your out at the store, why don’t you take a chance, shun that one hybrid (it who's name shall not be mentioned - that 'colonizer') and give one of those OTHER hybrids try? And have a nice glass of wine.

Clinton Vineyards Seyval Blanc
Brotherhood Winery Chelois
Four JGs Chambourcin Riserva
Clove Hill Chancellor
Horton’s Norton
Crooked Lake Winery Chancellor
Chaddsford Chambourcin
Chrysalis Vineyards Norton
Basignani Marisa
Hopewell Valley Chambourcin
Unionville Chambourcin