It’s a rule we learn early in our wine education: wine grapes grow almost exclusively between 30 degrees and 50 degrees north and south of the equator. Above this latitude, cold winters injure vines, spring frosts damage buds, and the sun’s warmth and light are too scarce to allow grapes to fully ripen; below this latitude, hot, humid weather leads to rampant fungal disease and pests. This adage, however, is considerably less reliable for examples beyond Vitis vinifera, the European wine grape species.
In recent years, the wine industry has undergone a renaissance of hybrid grapes, which are crosses between vinifera and the hardy, cold- and disease-resistant Vitis species that are native to the Americas. While wines made from hybrids have long been snubbed for their decidedly un-European flavors, these grapes’ potential for fine winemaking is now being realized. And as climate change brings unpredictable weather and greater disease risk, the opportunities presented by hybrids are even more important.
A hybrid grapevine is the result of crossing two different grape species. (Note that different varieties of European wine grape aren’t separate species—Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are both vinifera despite their drastically different appearance and flavor.) While any crossing of two different grape species can be called a hybrid, when the term hybrid is used casually, it typically refers to the crossing of European Vitis vinifera grapes and grapes native to the Americas.
Like most plant hybrids, these grapes have usually been introduced to solve winegrowing problems, most often combining vinifera’s popular flavor profile with native grapes’ resilience. In North America, pests, disease, and cold have threatened grapevines since the establishment of the first vineyards. Hybrids, conveniently enough, have addressed all three.
Before Europeans arrived in North America, native grapes grew abundantly across the Eastern Seaboard. Though early settlers found wild grapevines wherever they landed, they quickly judged these grapes unsuitable for wine production because of their tartness and unfamiliar flavors. Few written sources from the 16th century testify to winemaking using these grapes, and none describe the flavor of the wine. The first detailed records of wine made from native grape species, such as Vitis aestivalis, V. rotundifolia, and V. rupestris, are from the early 17th century. The wine is described in these writings as highly acidic and inferior to vinifera-based wine imported from Europe.
Native grape varieties often have small berries with thick skin and yield wines with low sugar content and high acidity. Their distinctive flavors presented further problems for colonial winemakers. The flavor of native grapes is often described as foxy. Vitis labrusca, which grows widely in New England and is perhaps best known as a parent to the distinctly flavored Concord hybrid, of Welch’s grape juice fame, is even called the fox grape. Modern drinkers would probably describe this flavor as grapey. It results from a number of chemicals present in native American grapes but not in vinifera, such as methyl anthranilate, used today to create artificial grape flavoring for chewing gum and soda.
The colonists’ frequent attempts to grow vinifera can be seen as indirect proof of their distaste for native grapes’ unusual (to Europeans, at least) flavors. Unfortunately for them, the early history of vinifera cultivation in America is largely a story of repeat failure. As early as 1568, a vinifera vineyard was reported to have been planted on Parris Island, off the coast of South Carolina, the first of many such attempts. These early vineyards typically died quickly and didn’t result in commercially successful wine production. No matter how hard colonial winegrowers tried to cultivate non-native grapes—with the Virginia Company bringing in vignerons from France and importing thousands of European vines in the 17th century—the vines invariably succumbed to cold, pests, fungal disease, or bacterial infection.
This changed around 1740, with the discovery of a strange grapevine in the woods, found by James Alexander, a gardener who worked at the estate of Thomas Penn, son of William Penn. More than half a century earlier, in the 1680s, the elder Penn had imported vinifera vines from Bordeaux and had attempted to plant a vineyard in what is now Philadelphia. Not surprisingly, the vineyard didn’t last. Its vinifera vines, however, left their mark by spontaneously cross-pollinating with native labrusca. Alexander’s newly discovered vine showed many of vinifera’s best qualities, such as its high sugar content and less foxy character. But unlike vinifera, it could grow successfully in the harsh winters and humid summers of the colonies.
The Alexander grape quickly spread, and other chance hybrids followed, such as Bland’s grape (popularized by Colonel Theodorick Bland, of Virginia, in the mid-1700s), Isabella (by Long Island winegrower William Prince, around 1816), and Catawba (by viticulturist John Adlum, of Georgetown, around 1819). Like the Alexander, these early hybrids were accidental crossings of native and European grapes, though their exact origins are unclear. Because of their vinifera-like appearance and flavors, they were often assumed to be particularly hardy European vines.
In 1852, the Long Island physician William Valk became the first to deliberately produce a vinifera-native grape hybrid: Ada, a cross between the Black Hamburg vinifera variety and the native labrusca. Valk’s experiments were followed by hundreds of successful hybrids in the latter half of the 19th century. This allowed American wine country to extend inland, eventually reaching California.
It’s important to emphasize that, as wine country expanded across North America, the land where the grapes grew was being confiscated by force or coercion from Indigenous populations. The hybrids that became so popular among colonial winegrowers were cultivated from grapes that had once served as important native food sources. Omitting these details would be a disservice to the Indigenous North Americans who were killed or displaced during these centuries and to those who continue to suffer from the effects of American colonization. Today, a handful of Indigenous tribes successfully operate wineries, such as Nk’Mip Cellars, in Canada’s Okanagan Valley, and Twisted Cedar, in Lodi, which have provided their members with a measure of economic stability.
Buying indigenous American wines and appreciating the flavors of hybrid grapes will not undo the harms of European colonization. But it’s a start to acknowledge Indigenous contributions to wine, and it’s important that wine professionals support Indigenous efforts to gain a foothold in the wine industry. The Aleut-Inupiat wine writer Elaine Chukan Brown has written on this topic extensively, as has the Filipino American sommelier Miguel de Leon.
While the expansion of wine country to the warmer, drier western states allowed winegrowers to cultivate vinifera, and while new winegrowing knowledge and technology eventually enabled successful vinifera plantings in the east, hybrids continued to be useful for their hardiness and pest resistance. Unlike vinifera, native grapes and hybrids resist many common vineyard maladies, such as mildew, botrytis, phylloxera, and Pierce’s disease. These qualities have made hybrids an essential part of North American viticulture since its establishment of commercial winemaking.
Today, hybrids’ hardiness is useful not only in regions where winegrowers can only use hybrids—that is, cold regions where vinifera can’t grow—but also in marginal climates where vinifera struggles against fickle weather and disease. Voltis, a mildew-resistant hybrid created by collaboration between France’s INRAE and Germany’s Julius Kühn Institute, recently became an approved variety in Champagne, though this decision is still awaiting EU approval. British winegrowers faced with frost damage have embraced frost-resistant varieties like Rondo and Seyval Blanc. Hundreds of miles south, Brazil’s vineyards are dominated by hybrids, such as the labrusca-vinifera hybrid Isabella, because of the risk of fungal growth resulting from the region’s tropical climate. Some hybrids have been developed with specific winegrowing regions in mind, such as Cornell grape breeder Bruce Reisch’s Aravelle, designed to resist New York’s cold winters and damp, mildew-prone growing conditions.
Climate change has added to the urgency of hybrid use, exaggerating weather extremes across the winegrowing world at both ends of the temperature scale. In Canada, for example, sudden cold snaps in the Niagara Peninsula in 2022 caused extensive damage to grapevines, renewing calls to adopt hybrids. Higher temperatures and increased rainfall in other winegrowing regions have resulted in ideal conditions for the development of fungal disease and insect-borne diseases, such as Pierce’s disease, as well as the proliferation of insects, such as the spotted lantern fly.
These pressures may give winegrowers in warmer regions where hybrids have otherwise not been needed a reason to try them. And even where vinifera crops don’t face dire threats, hybrids can allow winegrowers to work more sustainably, decreasing the use of fungicides and insecticides. In southern Italy, for example, organic winegrowers have experimented with Chambourcin, reducing or eliminating the need for copper sulfate spraying.
The development of new hybrids is similar to that of new vinifera varieties. Parent grapevines—which could be vinifera, native varieties, or hybrids themselves—are selected for qualities that might help solve a winegrowing problem, such as a challenging climate, a specific vineyard pest, or an undesirable flavor characteristic in an existing hybrid variety. The plants are cross-pollinated, and the seeds are germinated in a nursery. Then, new varieties must be tested in the vineyard, with researchers scoring vines’ performance on benchmarks such as disease susceptibility and cold tolerance. For this reason, new hybrids can take decades to develop.
DNA testing is expected to reduce the timescale of hybrid development. Launched in 2011, with funding from the USDA’s Specialty Crop project, the VitisGen project was founded with the goal of streamlining the development of new grape varieties by identifying markers of traits such as disease resistance and cold tolerance and using genetic sequencing to identify seedlings with these traits. These tools eliminate much of the need for costly, time-consuming testing in the vineyard. The project is now in its third iteration and has identified over 70 associations between genetic markers and observed traits.
Though hybrids have as much variety in flavor and structure as vinifera grapes, it’s possible to make a few generalizations. Many hybrids exhibit a foxy flavor, though some do not, and foxy grapes don’t always translate into foxy wine (more on that later). Herbaceous notes are also common. While hybrid grapes don’t necessarily have less tannin than vinifera, finished red wines typically have lighter tannins, because tannins bind to defense proteins, which are higher in native grapes and hybrids. Red wines often lack color stability, with deep purple wines quickly fading to pale red brown, the result of less-stable anthocyanins. High acidity is also a hallmark of these wines, though newer hybrids are often more balanced.
Winemakers looking for a more traditional style can use certain techniques to solve perceived problems in hybrid flavor and structure. Pressing before high alcohol levels begin to extract foxy flavors from seeds can reduce these flavors, while adding tannins can bolster structure and stabilize color. Deacidification or malolactic conversion can tame hybrids’ naturally high acid—though the high acid of hybrids like Vidal Blanc is often desirable in late-harvest or ice wines.
Some winemakers have responded to the challenges of hybrids by making grapes in wholly different styles. In Vermont, Deirdre Heekin’s La Garagista winery embraces hybrids’ high acidity in offbeat, terroir-driven sparkling wines that highlight rather than suppress flavors unique to hybrids. The Finger Lakes is home to Nathan Kendall and Pascaline Lepeltier’s Chëpìka project, where—rather than forcing red hybrid grapes into heavy-bodied, traditional molds—labrusca hybrids such as Concord and Catawba are made into light-bodied, pale-colored, and shamelessly grapey reds and rosés.
Hybrid winemaking invites larger questions about the future of the wine industry and the urgency of change in its sustainability and labor practices. This ethos is evident in projects such as the Brooklyn sommelier Jahdé Marley’s Anything But Vinifera summit, a traveling educational project designed to promote native and hybrid grapes, challenge winemaking dogma, and encourage a “people first, planet first” approach to agriculture. Meanwhile, Vermont’s Kalchē Wine Cooperative goes further than other hybrid wine producers in what it describes as the decolonization of wine, not only by creating nontraditional hybrid wine styles—even co-fermenting with local fruit and herbs, a practice ubiquitous in North American home winemaking but rarely mentioned in wine texts—but also by structuring its business as a workers’ co-operative.
Hybrid wine has often proved a tough sell to wine critics, with scores tending to reflect skepticism about these grapes’ ability to produce fine wines. But, though many experts have yet to be won over by these wines, everyday drinkers seem to be more open-minded. This might be one area where the low profile of hybrid wine can work to its advantage: while wine drinkers’ unfamiliarity with hybrids might make it challenging to convey the appeal of these wines over conventional varieties, this unfamiliarity also means drinkers don’t have existing prejudices.
In a 2019 study, researchers found that while high concentrations of methyl anthranilate (that is, the foxy or grapey flavor) were considered a fault by wine professionals, nonexpert participants saw the flavors as more acceptable. Wine drinkers in states where hybrids are common seem even more accepting of their distinct flavors; in the same study, Pennsylvanians were more accepting of these flavors than Californians, showing no preference for nonfoxy versus foxy wine, and, in another study from 2023, Iowans actually preferred foxier wines. These results may mean that hybrids can win over wine drinkers just by their presence on local shelves.
Sustainability might end up being the key to hybrid wine marketing. In a 2022 study of consumer acceptance of hybrids, drinkers who cared more about the environmental impact of wine were more likely to accept hybrid wines and to pay more for them, confirming previous findings about buyers’ willingness to spend more for sustainable wines.
The trajectory of hybrids seems split into two directions. In one, grape breeders are creating more vinifera-like hybrids, adding resilience while maintaining familiar flavors, as winemakers come up with more ways to make traditionalist-friendly wine out of hybrids. In another, wine producers and other professionals are embracing the idiosyncrasies of hybrids, reviving historical wine styles, and creating demand for new and unique wines.
Both approaches promise hybrids a lasting place in the global wine industry. The wine business is desperate for more sustainable ways of creating traditional wines, and nontraditional wines encourage innovation in the industry and ensure that adventurous young drinkers don’t lose interest in wine altogether. We could do worse than to take the hybrid grape—which gained a foothold in the wine world by its sheer tenacity in simply refusing to die—as our mascot for a changing wine world.
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