Hybrids aren’t limited to the automotive industry – any gardener could tell you that, but they do occupy a niche in the pantheon of grape varieties.
In viticulture, there are only a few species of grape vines out there. Grapevines belong to the genus Vitis, which is composed of the 60 or so various species such as vinifera, labrusca, and rupestris. Ideal for winemaking is Vitis vinifera – this is the “European” vine and the various varieties of this species is where cabernet sauvignon comes from, where chardonnay comes from, and so on. Thought of another way, you have wolves and domestic dogs. In your home you might have a Chihuahua, a boxer, or a poodle. You can breed a dachshund and a corgi to get a cross, but if you breed two different species, you get something different – a hybrid – a bit like a mule.
Biologically speaking, the role of a vine isn’t to make wine, it is to make fruit, which is then eaten by various species of animal that help disperse the seeds etc., and ultimately propagate the species. It’s just that man, somewhere along the way, figured out that by letting grapes rot in a bucket, you can have some fun on the weekend and certain grapes taste pretty good when you do this.
When Europeans came to the Americas they were pleased to find that vines were already abundant, and whether you think that the missionaries needed communion wine, or the colonists just wanted to enjoy a Saturday night with a buzz, sooner or later efforts turned to making wine from what was on hand.
The North American indigenous vines such as labrusca and rupestris evolved specifically for the conditions to propagate the species. Winter hardiness is typically attributed to these vines, especially when compared to the Middle East and Mediterranean conditions where European vines have their history.
But that comes at a price, the fruit is less… well suited to our palates and wine made from these varieties often has a distinctively rustic character -often described as “foxy” flavours. Calm down swinger, not sexy-foxy but hairy-animal foxy. Aspiring viticulturists and winemakers in the eastern states and eastern Canada thought to cross European varieties with the local vines in the hopes of getting the best of both worlds.
Were they successful?
To borrow a line from Vancouver-based sommelier, Kurtis Kolt, “imagine a glass of ice-cold milk, and a glass of spoiled milk, blend them together and think about what the resulting milk tastes like. You get a larger glass of spoiled milk.” This is sort of what happens with hybrid grapes. Sure, you often get the winter hardiness of the one, but you don’t always get the pretty fruit of the other.
Although often shunned by wine drinkers who favour the “purity” of European varieties, hybrids can and do make quality wine when made by winemakers who know the nuances of these grapes. These varieties are generally only found in Canada and the eastern United States but can certainly add some variety to your table.
Stag’s Hollow 2014 Tragically Vidal, Okanagan Valley, BC
Nothing tragic here, unless you aren’t willing to at least give it a try. A hybrid cross most commonly found in Canada and widely used for icewine. Its parents are ugni blanc (trebbiano) and a parent of seyval blanc. It generally lacks the foxy character ofhybrids and can sometimes present a mild “vinyl” aroma in its icewines. From Stag’s Hollow in the Okanagan, it’s one of the few vidals in Alberta that isn’t a late harvest or icewine. Fruits are concentrated with orange and lemon zippiness with good balance and a pleasant finish. It pairs well with pork loin or seafood in creamier sauces. $24 on select wine shelves for now.
Henry of Pelham 2013 Baco Noir, Niagara Peninsula, Ontario
Only a few examples can be found in Alberta of a hybrid that does quite well in Canada. Wine drinkers love the full-bodied character of this grape along with some smokiness and good balance in a package that can age reasonably well. Here, look for juicy prune, sour cherry, cigar smoke, tar, spice, decent fruits and good tannin presence. About $20 CSPC +270926
Quail’s Gate 2013 Old Vines Foch, Okanagan Valley, BC
Marechal Foch is a grape of convoluted heritage – it is lighter bodied than baco noir, and found produced in both BC and ON. It generally avoids too much foxiness, though some examples can have a lot of… “flavour”. This is one of the best examples of foch out there, ripe, brambly fruits, smoke, chocolate, tar, and leather with just a little rustic character. $28 CSPC +639625
Calona 2014 Sovereign Opal, Okanagan Valley, BC
Unique to the Calona winery, sovereign opal is a weird crossing of marechal foch and golden muscat. Currently only grown by the Caruso Family, it’s best when picked early to avoid some “hybrid” characteristics. Lots of lime and a flowery core that is unique to the variety along with some interesting mineral-type expressions. $13 CSPC +364265