Most of the wines we enjoy today are produced from Vitis vinifera, the European grapevine species responsible for well-known grapes like Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir. But as technology and viticulture advances, more winemakers turn to a category of grapes known as hybrids.
Hybrid grapes, made by crossing European Vitis vinifera vines with American Vitis labrusca or Vitis riparia grapes, were originally cultivated in response to phylloxera. After the pest destroyed most of the vineyards in Europe in the late 1800s, grape breeders experimented with new insect- and disease-resistant grapes that wouldn’t be as affected by the pest or other issues like rot, mildew or cold temperatures.
While these hybrids provided a solution, they weren’t widely embraced in Europe. Winemakers found the flavors, tannins and acid structure of Vitis vinifera grapes more favorable than hybrid varieties, often thought to produce simpler wines with musky aromas and flavors. Until recently, hybrid grapes were largely banned in European wine regions.
Today, less than 5% of vineyards globally are planted with hybrid grapes, according to Dr. José Vouillamoz, a Swiss grape geneticist and co-author of Wine Grapes. But as climate change affects many areas, winemakers have begun to embrace new grapes.
Growers in the Languedoc-Roussillon and Bordeaux are among the first in France to make wines with these resistant cultivars.
In North America, there’s a rich history of farming hybrids. Many were developed at Cornell University and the University of Minnesota. In places like Vermont, Michigan, Canada and the Finger Lakes region of New York, hybrid grapes like Chambourcin, Vidal Blanc or Marquette have been grown for decades.
Many now refine the wines produced with them, and wine lovers have slowly warmed up to their potential.
Here’s a guide to some of the most common hybrid grapes and the regions that make unique, compelling wines with them.
White Hybrid Grapes
In 2001, Lucian Dressel of Davis Viticultural Research created Cabernet Doré. The unique crossing of Cabernet Sauvignon and the red hybrid Norton yielded a white grape, likely a recessive gene from Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon’s parent. Its characteristics are similar to its green-skinned grandparent, with a creamier texture and more floral notes like Muscat or Sémillon. Only a handful of states have vineyards planted to it, many located in the Midwest.
The Cayuga White grape was developed at Cornell in 1945 and later released for use in 1972, intended for the nearby Finger Lakes region, where it appears in many sparkling wines. Outside of New York, Cayuga is grown in Vermont and Pennsylvania, where it can range in style from dry and citrusy to rich, late-harvest dessert wines.
A crossing of Chardonnay and Seyval Blanc, Chardonel was developed at Cornell in 1953, and it was released and named in 1990. In the vineyard, Chardonel is similar to Chardonnay and maintains its distinctive acidity. It grows well in Michigan and Arkansas.
One of the most cold-hardy grapes, La Crescent was named after a small town in Minnesota, where it was developed by University of Minnesota breeders and released in 2002. The grape has high sugar and acidity levels, and it’s often used to create sweet or semisweet wines that exude stone fruit, citrus and tropical aromas.
One of the most widely planted hybrids east of the Rocky Mountains, Seyval Blanc was first created by Bertille Seyve in France. It produces fresh, crisp wines ripe with attractive citrus, peach and grassy aromas. The grape is popular in Canada, the American Midwest, New York and England, where it’s commonly blended into sparkling wines.
Released by Cornell University in 1996, this grape is a cross of Gewürztraminer and a French-American hybrid, Joannes Seyve 23.416. Traminette possesses similar floral and spicy aromatic properties common to Gewürztraminer, while still being resistant to fungal diseases and cold climates. It’s planted along the East Coast and Midwest, where it was chosen by the Indiana Wine Grape Council as the state’s signature wine.
Developed in France in the 1930s by Jean Louis Vidal, Vidal Blanc, often shortened to just “Vidal,” is compared sometimes to Riesling. Depending on where it’s grown, Vidal might be crisp and citrusy, or more pineapple and floral.
A crossing of Ugni Blanc and the hybrid variety, Rayon d’Or, Vidal Blanc is grown widely around the Great Lakes, where the thick-skinned grape is used to make ice wine in Ontario and the Finger Lakes. It’s also used to make dry wines in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and Virginia.
Red Hybrid Grapes
This dark-skinned variety has berry and black cherry flavors capable of channeling those of Beaujolais or the Rhône Valley. Created by Francois Baco during the phylloxera epidemic in France, Baco Noir is one of the few hybrid grapes permitted historically in a European appellation, where it’s grown in Gascony to make Armagnac brandy. In North America, it’s grown primarily in Canada, New York, Oregon and Nova Scotia.
Marked for its pronounced “foxy” or musky flavor, this purple-hued grape is believed to have originated somewhere along the East Coast of the U.S., where it’s still grown predominantly around Lake Erie and the Finger Lakes. It’s the likely cross of Sémillon and an unknown Vitis labrusca variety.
Catawba played an important role in early American winegrowing, but it’s fallen out of favor as more favorable hybrids have been discovered. Its clonal mutation, Pink Catawba, is used to make rosé, which is sweeter and lower in acidity. It resembles a white Zinfandel.
Johannes Seyve 11369 and Plantet were crossed to make Chambourcin, the work of French biochemist Joannes Seyve (son of Bertille). Considered one of the best French-American hybrids, Chambourcin is a teinturier variety, a red grape with both dark skin and flesh. It creates vibrant, aromatic red wines often higher in tannins than other hybrid-based bottlings. The widely planted grape can be found in Ontario, the U.S. Midwest and on the East Coast as far south as North Carolina.
Sometimes referred to as Frontenac Noir, this complex cross of the hybrid Landot Noir with a native Vitis riparia vine was developed at the University of Minnesota in 1978 and was released in 1996. Then, in 2003, a grey-berried mutation of the grape called Frontenac Gris was released, with the white-fruited mutation, Frontenac Blanc, in 2012. The dark-skinned Frontenac has enjoyed success in Minnesota, where it’s one of the most commonly planted wine grapes, as well as in Vermont, where it’s used to make rustic pétillant-naturel wines.
This blue-berried hybrid, a grandchild of Pinot Noir, was created in 1989 at the University of Minnesota and released for public use in 2006. Like Chambourcin, Marquette is a teinturier variety, with blue-tinged skin and colored flesh inside.
It’s a versatile grape that can be fragrant and fruity, or exude more complex characteristics like tobacco and leather. Known for its hardiness in cold weather, it can be found mostly in Minnesota, Vermont and New York.
Norton was cultivated during the early 1800s in Richmond, Virginia, where Dr. Daniel Norton first planted it in his vineyards. Soon after, it became the dominant wine grape on the East Coast, as well as in Midwestern states like Ohio. Most of those vines were ripped up during Prohibition and replanted with Concord grapes. In recent years, winemakers in Virginia and Missouri have worked to revive the hybrid grape, whose parentage is still unknown.