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Grape varieties for the adventurous consumer. Hybrids is a new cool.

Hybrid grapes of New York state

New York state has been long known for growing hybrid grapes– deliberate crossings between Europe’s vitis vinifera and American native species, such as vitis labrusca, vitis riparia, and vitis rupestris.  

Hybrids were created for various reasons, but mainly to provide resistance against disease and pest, in addition to their cold hardiness. Some of them can withstand temperatures as low as minus 30 Fahrenheit. 

Wine fact: Back in 19thcentury when phylloxera, an insect that attacks grapevine roots, wiped out most of vitis viniferagrape species in Europe. The only successful way of controlling phylloxera has been the grafting of phylloxera-resistant American rootstock cultivars to more susceptible European vinifera vines.

These grapes are different than some of the traditional European wine grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay or Riesling. They have a different flavor profile and sometimes even display kind of foxy or musky flavors and aromas, deemed unfavorable buy many connoisseurs. However, not only they make North Country viticulture possible, they are quickly gaining recognition among more adventurous consumers.  

Few weeks ago, I attended a seminar at NY Drinks NY Grand Tasting– ‘The Past, Present and Future of New York’s Hybrid Grapes.’ The discussion was moderated by Pascaline Lepeltier,MS and viticulturist Mike Colizzi of the Cornell University, along with six local winemakers. Here are five hybrid grapes we learned about and five wines we tasted during the seminar.

5 Hybrid Grapes to Know

Traminette– a cross of the German Vitis vinifera Gewurztraminer and French American hybrid developed by Cornell University’s grape breeding program. In addition to its excellent wine quality, combined with high productivity, cold and disease resistance, it has similar flavor profile of its parent producing pleasing and approachable wines.

To try: Thirsty Owl Wine Company, 2017 Traminette, Finger Lakes

Tasting notes: lychee, wild flowers, banana and salty aftertaste with enough acidity to balance out the wine’s natural sweetness.  

Vignoles– often described as Riesling-like, the parentage of Vignoles is currently unknown. Viticulturally, it’s a moderately vigorous grape variety with moderate yields, high sugar content and high acid. Small bunches are highly susceptible to Botrytis rot, with overall average resistance to cold temperatures and diseases.

To try: Keuka Lake Vineyards, 2017 ‘Turkey Run’ Vignoles, Finger Lakes

Tasting notes: exotic fruit (honeydew, sweet pear, and lime) with barely perceptible petrol notes at the background with mouth-puckering acidity and very dry finish.

Anthony Road Wine Company, 2016 Vignoles, Finger Lakes 

Tasting notes: dry wild herbs and white flowers, then apricot and pineapple with sufficient sugar to balance the acid. More balanced and approachable version of Vignoles.    

Marechal Fosh– named after French general Ferdinand Foch, it’s a cross of vitis riparia-rupestris hybrid and the vinifera variety Gold Riesling developed in Alsace. It’s an early ripening variety able to withstand freezing temperatures. 

To try: Damiani Wine Cellars, NV Marechal Foch ‘Vino Rosso, Finger Lakes

Tasting notes: lush sweet-tart elderberry flavor with earthy undertone and slightly dusty mouthfeel. 

Baco Noir– a cross between European Vitis vinifera and American Vitis riparia developed in 1900s when phylloxera had almost destroyed all the vineyards in France. 

To try: Benmarl, 2015 Baco Noir, Hudson River Valley

Tasting notes: red current, sour cherry jam, and prunes with high acidity, moderate silky tannins, and peppery finish.  

Niagara– a cross-breed of two Vitis labrusca varieties – Concord and white Cassady. Used widely in jams and jellies as well as for eating, this grape makes an excellent sherry. 

To try: Red Newt Cellars, 2006 ‘Legacy’, Niagara Cream Sherry, Finger Lakes

Tasting notes: dry fruit like apricot and raisin), cinnamon/clove baking spice with pleasant sweetness and rocket acidity. 

Did I find these wines interesting? Yes! Do I think hybrid grapes are inferior to European vitis vinifera? Not at all! Hybrids are maybe different, but in the hands of talented winemaker, they are capable of producing unique and complex wines. I encourage you to embrace the diversity in wine and be open to experimentation. So, make an effort to discover what local grapes and hybrids grow in your region and try to find the best wine that your local wineries have to offer. 

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