Ask a Wine Pro: What is a Hybrid Grape?
And, more importantly, do they make wines worth trying?
I was recently chatting with an Okanagan winemaker about up-and-coming Vancouver Island wineries when he sniffed dismissively, “They’re using those grapes that you can ripen in a freaking snowstorm.” By “those grapes,” he meant hybrids, which are grapes that are the product of crossbreeding between species, usually with the goal of creating a heartier, more reliable grape. But their accomplishments in practicality have always been offset by a serious lack of street cred.
The cool-kid grapes—cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, and pretty much every other grape name you know—are all the species Vitis vinifera. Hybrids are blends between vinifera and other species, and while there’s no suggesting that they’ll knock nebbiolo off the top of the heap, there is a growing trend among savvy winemakers to strategically blend hybrid grapes with vinifera to make interesting, consistent wine. A good example is Monte Creek, east of Kamloops, where growing conditions are trickier than farther south. They bolster some of their classical varieties with hybrids: their Hands Up Red contains both merlot and cabernet sauvignon, but also frontenac noir and marquette, two hybrids out of Minnesota, of all places. On Vancouver Island, Unsworth has been a pioneer in the selective use of hybrids. Their charming sparkling Charme de L’Ile flies off the shelves as soon as it’s released—it relies on pinot noir and pinot gris, but also a small hit of the hybrid sauvignette. Their red Symphony is a blend of the oddball hybrids cabernet libre and petite milo. The commonality among all these wines is their affordability—the ripeness and yield safety net that hybrids provide allows winery owners to be more than fair in their pricing. Are they the next big thing? Not likely, but they’re probably worth a tire kick or two.