Why “Hybrid” Isn’t Useful — or Important — in Wine Ruminations on retraining the tongue -- and how we talk about wine

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The harvest season is a wrap in the northernmost reaches of wine country, and except for the clusters that still hang in wait for an icy press, the harvest process is much the same as any other grape producing region around the world. While the wines are bubbling away on their journey towards bottles and glasses in the future, I’m still thinking back on a series of meals at la garagista that I enjoyed during the heart of the growing season.

What transpired at these repasts made one think that a radical change is underway and that its time for a subversive turn in semantics.

These lunches and dinners were notable both for those who joined and for the libations imbibed. The first and last of the series were attended by the general manager of a hip restaurant in Montreal and each time she brought serious foodies and hospitality pros with her. We dined with a top wine columnist on vacation tour who was taking in the tastes and scenes of Vermont. There was a natural wine maven in the neighborhood for a series of book gigs, as well as her co-author, a master sommelier.

Hybrid wines, CA/US hybrid lunch on the #lagaragista lower terrace. Now this is international relations. #wine

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At each gathering, the majority, if not all, of the wines were composed of cold-climate grapes grown in Vermont, in the north country of New York or Quebec. The varieties originated from breeding programs at the University of Minnesota, Elmer Swenson’s farm, Cornell University and even preceding efforts; La Crescent, Brianna, Marquette, Frontenac, Vidal, Vignoles, Aromella, Geneva Red.

It was not the presence of these wines that made the meals remarkable in this crowd, but rather the lack of remarks as to their heritage.

Not once did the conversation — even innocently — steer toward, “wow, compared to vinifera this is really quite nice for being a hybrid.” The wines were appreciated and accepted on their own merits as individuals unto themselves. They were universally enjoyed and showed to pair exceptionally well with anything that was served. There were gorgeous cheeses from Quebec and Vermont, assorted pickles, various charcuterie. There were entrées from the simplest pork cutlet and fresh summer vegetables to massive piles of braised beef shanks upon Persian rice topped with fresh pomegranate.

It was encouraging not to hear the H-word mentioned. Even once.

It’s been a bad word in the wine world for quite some time. I agree it’s a bad word, but for a different reason than most. The H-word does a really bad job of describing a wine because it doesn’t provide any real content or useful information. The word seems to be acceptable — even desirable — when applied to cars, power sources, art forms, cannabis, and software development processes, but not so much with wine.

During the middle lunch of the series,  la garagista’s Deirdre Heekin, who grows and makes wine from these grape varieties, shared her recent research into the etymology of the word “hybrid.” Its function in Latin was to describe the offspring of a wild boar and a domesticated sow, or the child of a freeman and a slave; basically a mongrel. It’s a pejorative in its original application, and it’s too often used that way with wine.

I’ve decided to stop using the term unless it is absolutely necessary and contextually appropriate.

There are many grapes that can be pegged by the H-word, from ones that grow here in the North Country surviving 40-below zero Fahrenheit winters and a short growing season, to those that thrive in the much hotter and humid conditions of the American south. The H-word, on its own, says nothing about where these grapes come from, where they belong or what they are like in personality and presentation. The H-word only serves to convey what the grapes are not…vinifera. That’s technically correct, but nearly devoid of meaning when used as an adjective. Yet, this mingling of the traits of the “inferior” native American grapes, with the “true” wine grapes of Europe fundamentally evokes the H-word and its associated derogatory bias.

It’s true that historically native North American grapes have rarely made fine wine, but should the children be forced to suffer the iniquities of the parents, and have that be so for generations? It’s only been a couple to a few decades during which folks have had time to work with these new, intentionally bred varieties, where the dreaded American “foxiness” is no longer a factor. While early products are not necessarily hard and fast indicators of overall quality, experimentation has proven great potential in a short amount of time. We are now at a point where some winemakers are moving beyond the boundaries of “conventional” laboratory-like production with these new raw materials. Some have begun asking fundamental questions about the intrinsic qualities of these fruits and how best can we help them be expressed.

The post-phylloxera breeding programs of the late 19th and early 20th centuries produced vigorous and productive offspring that were commercially viable but not “traditional” and so did not culturally survive Europe’s American rootstock grafting solution. Exiled to the New World, their descendants are on the rise here now.

It’s worth considering the paleontological genetic record which seems to indicate that the Vitis genus originated in North America in the Miocene a scant 28 million years ago, and was then distributed across the northern hemisphere somewhere in the same epoch when humanity was separated from the apes. It also seems that while the genus is strongly bound by similar plant morphology, grapes propensity for genetic promiscuity makes the concept of “species” among vines a bit fuzzier. I’ve long been tempted to scrawl a ranting screed about how the bias against inter-specific crosses borders on the same purity fallacies of the Eugenics movements that have previously stained human history and continue to sully our present. While the current political climate might warrant such an approach, there are probably more productive ways to engage this conversation.

Between the vines, where I belong. BRIIIIIAAANNNNNNNNNNNNNNNA!

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The way to engage in the conversation is to have it at the table. I encourage folks to listen to what the wines and food have to say to one another…and if we can drop our preconceptions for just a moment, listen to what they say to us. If we take wine seriously, this is an important point. Serious wine professionals are doing just that. The people I communed with over meals were doing it. Masters of Wine, Doug Frost and Tim Hanni are doing it as they appear in a new documentary about Cold Climate wines in the upper midwest. Wine Enthusiast must be doing something too, having included Deirdre Heekin on it’s shortlist for 2017 Winemaker of the Year for her work at la garagista. Viticulture is moving past the time of quiet inklings and we are now hearing the ring of bellwethers.

It’s the right time for us to start using our words and to grab this opportunity to develop a language and describe this new reality. Applying the H-word regularly and mindlessly is a useless shortcut. We can do better when we say their names, say where they come from, say what they smell and taste like…that is what is required to convey something useful to readers, clientele and one another.

Among all of the meals, it was only during the last, that the conversation came even remotely close to calling out cold climate wines as somehow being remarkable. It was reported that a staff member at the Ten Bells in New York City had recently been blind sniffing a glass at a master-class and exclaimed with satisfactory pleasure and confidence, “Now, this is La Crescent!“

Somewhere out there in the mainstream wine world, someone with good palate, trained sensibilities, recognition capabilities and an open mind, knew it as a wine of type and of place, and it really didn’t matter who it’s daddy was.

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About Author

Todd is a north country native, and lifelong inhabitant of the northeast. Growing up in the Mohawk river and Lake Champlain Valleys, then attending Binghamton University, youthful adventures to ‘the city’ were more likely to target Montreal, than Manhattan. He made a lateral move to Vermont in 1991 for graduate school, and while he still lives in the Green Mountains, he is frequently found within the Blue Line of the Adirondack Park, or floating on the big lake in between. As a third-generation Polish-Italian American, with family lore of Prohibition era winemaking on both sides, the probability of predisposed wine interest was high. A 1976 family trip through the Finger Lakes left a young Todd wondering why there weren’t vineyards back home on Lake Champlain, and in the Hudson Valley. He trained his palate on the rise of the microbrew wave, and by rummaging wine racks in old country stores, searching out forgotten bottles. Numerous relationships with folks in the wine and restaurant trades, provide an ongoing education about food and wine culture in the north country, which he shares through the Vermont Wine Media project. For ten years, Todd has kept his ear to the ground for any signs of wine growing in the far north. He is a volunteer and test winemaker at the Cornell Baker Farm, a cold-hardy hybrid trial vineyard, in Willsboro, NY, where his extended family resides. He home vinifies grapes harvested from the trial, as well as fruit acquired anywhere from Vermont to Chile. Author of 'Wines of Vermont: A History of Pioneer Fermentation', he lives and gardens with his wife, canine, feline, and donkey friends, at an old farmstead in Stockbridge, VT.

2 Comments

  1. Hybrids are AWESOME grapes/wine!!! Chambourcin, Cayuga White, Vidal, Traminette, Chardonel are my favorites. I have won numerous awards, best of shows with them!!! Don’t sell them short. Easier to grow than vinifera.

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