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October 23, 2007

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Hybrids can be good but I'd hardly classify them as great overall. At least, nothing that I've tasted.

Obviously, the hardiness and disease-reistant properties of hybrids have always been their best quality, and many Finger Lakes wineries experimented with them in the past several decades. For the most part, however, many of these wineries have limited their output of hybrid wines simply because they don't appeal to those who want finer, vinifera-like wines or those who want the foxy, fruity sweet taste of American grapes. Hybrids are a strange middle ground that isn't really favored by either group.

Some wineries have incorporated hybrids into some very adequate blends, just like the Ravines Keuka Village White that Lenn reviewed favorably the other day.

I've had some hybrid reds that were fun and different, but they lacked the succulent and smooth nature of vinifera. Most red hybrids I've had (and many of the names escape me) have a distinct velvety and thick taste that lacked refinement.

As for the whites, they are usually better. I've never had a Traminette and didn't think to myself "Wow, this tastes somewhat like Gewurtztraminer!" Yet, I've never had a Traminette and thought to myself "Wow, this tastes just like a GREAT Gewurtztraminer!"

The article is interesting. With so many clones and genetic experimentation, is it possible that the Cornell folk will come up with hybrids that can compete with vinifera? I have no idea, but with thousands of varieties that will need years of testing and time on the vine I guess the jury is still out.

Fascinating stuff!

I have some strong feelings on hybrids. Jim Rink, one of the pioneer winegrower/winemakers around Traverse City, owner/grower/winemaker of Boskydel Winery and a guy with attitude, he believes that "hybrid" varieties, are unique to a lot of the places in the eastern and northern US, and give these places a true sense of place, the same way Chardonnay and Pinot Noir give Burgundy a sense of place, or Sangiovese gives Tuscany a sense of place. Terrior, is partially a result of grape choice.

These grapes differ from their more "noble" sisters and brothers--and that should be what we enjoy about them. I've had dozens of fabulous and unique Chambourcin from all over the US, and it does reflect the terrior of where it is grown. Vignoles, Vidal Blanc, Chardonel, Traminette (which I've helped harvest), can all be very unique and satisfying, but we have to understand them as unique and individual grape varieties.

The one problem regarding these varieties is that most plantings are relatively young, and many winemakers still have to learn their way with these varieties. For example, Traminette poses lots of problems and decisions for the grower/winemaker. If vine vigor is too high, you get a very dull, dilute wine, but if it's too low and the grapes get too much sun exposure, you get an insanely strong floral perfume that borders on offensive. Like Gewurztraminer, acidity can be dangerously low, and spicy phenols can make the wine too bitter if not vinified carefully.

Chambourcin and Norton are two red varieties that astound me with their character, charm, and quality, and that showcase the midwest's potential. Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana are showing some very nice examples of these two. Yes, complex, but in their own way.

The biggest problem facing these "hybrids" is a problem with reception. People think of these varietals as "hybrids", which gives them the status of a child or younger sibling whose parents or big brother are much more successful. Wine sobbery and unfamiliarity cause people to snub these varieties, little do they know that Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir weren't sent to earth from on high, but were products of hybridization, whether intentional or not.

Great article.

Martin,

Great point on the fact that all main breeds of grapes are, in fact, hybrid offspring of several millenia of accidents and experimentation.

A few North American hybrids are natural in that they were not cooked up by Cornell staff in Geneva, NY, but were the result of early farm plantings clashing and joining with native vegetation.

I envy your experience with hybrids as I have only had a selection that are offered by a few Finger Lakes producers. These include only a handful of reds.

Overall, late harvest vignoles are my favorite.

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