So there I was, sitting happily in a Sommelier 1/Cellar Manager class a couple of years ago. The course was designed as an introduction to several wine topics, including Old World vs. New World wines, wine production, wine evaluation, and of course, wine appreciation. As our instructor was addressing American wine production, she spent a total of 90 seconds on the topic of native and hybrid grapes grown in America. She did a lot of damage in those 90 seconds.
“Native and hybrid wines taste foxy to me,” she stated, as she wrinkled up her nose in a sign of disgust. I looked across the room and watched in dismay as twenty or so of my classmates were shaking there heads in agreement (I’m guessing only a handful had actually tried a wine made from native or hybrid grapes) and surely filing away a mental note that wines from these grapes do in fact taste foxy and should be avoided.
I’m not saying that this was a bad course; to the contrary, I learned a lot about wine evaluation and exercises to improve tasting effectiveness. The instructor was good as well, although the damning of native and hybrid wines did not seem to jibe well in a class that was supposed to teach wine appreciation. Perhaps I was overly sensitive. If so, there was a reason for that–my appreciation of wine started with native and hybrid grapes.
American-grown grapes can be classified into three different categories: vitis vinifera, native, or hybrid. Vitis vinifera are the grapes that are the most well-known, including but not limited to Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, and Zinfandel. These grapes originated in Europe, but have all been planted successfully in American soil. Unless you live in the far West, a few Eastern states, or in a sprinkling of states in the South and Rocky Mountain regions (i.e. Texas, Colorado, New Mexico), a vast majority of the wines produced in your neck of the woods will be made from either native or hybrid grapes. Climatic factors such as cold temperatures and humidity prohibit vitis vinifera grapes from thriving in most states.
Native grapes are, as their name implies, native to the US. Some of the more commonly known native grapes are Norton (a/k/a Cynthiana) and Concord. Hybrid grapes are created by crossing vines of different species, typically American and French vines. Some of the more popular hybrid grapes include Seyval Blanc, Chardonel, Chambourcin, Vignoles, Traminette, and Baco Noir. Native and hybrid grapes have proven to withstand the climatic challenges that regions such as the Midwest, the South, and far Northern states present.
As stated earlier, my appreciation for wine began by drinking wines made from native and hybrid grapes. I grew up in Southern Illinois, where wine production began to come in to favor in the 1980s and 1990s. Up until I was 23 or so, my drinking education was basically keg beer, cheap whiskey, and cheaper vodka. In the meantime, wineries had been popping up everywhere in the area and going to the wineries was suddenly the thing to do. So I gave wine a try.
I found that I really liked sweeter wines. The dry wines, well, not so much. My young, inexperienced palate did not take well to the tannins, dryness, and higher alcohol content found in these wines. Then again, I’m not sure that many people tasting wine for the first time would actually enjoy their first sip of a tannic cabernet sauvignon or petite sirah–it’s an acquired taste that takes time and patience.
Producers utilizing native and hybrid grapes seem to strongly grasp the fact that there are a wide range of palates out there. It’s not uncommon to see sweet wines, semi-sweet wines, dry wines and even dessert wines being made by the same producer. For beginning wine drinkers, these options are a blessing. Easily approachable sweet wines can plant the seed of wine appreciation, semi-sweet wines bridge the gap to drier wines, and when the palate is ready, the drier wines await. Keep in mind that these wineries are often catering to a very localized audience with a wide range of wine experience, so a flexible wine list can be a very helpful draw.
To me, the most important role that native/hybrid producers play in the wine industry is the introduction of winemaking to new regions, which in turn introduces wine to people that wouldn’t otherwise have anything to do with it. I think of my parents, who never showed much interest in wine until visiting the wineries that sprung up in Southern Illinois. Flash forward three years and they’ve now converted their basement to a wine cellar/bar. You won’t find many Cabs, Chardonnays, or Merlots in their cellar. What you will find is an array of native and hybrid wines made from producers in the surrounding states.
Of all the various wines I’ve tried made from native or hybrid grapes, the Nortons are the most appealing. Norton has a Zinfandel-like quality, with a similar body and a spiciness to it. These wines may not rival top California Zins, but they can be very enjoyable and demonstrate great quality.
It’s true that some of the native/hybrid wines taste foxy. Know what? I’ve had Cabs and Merlots that have been downright awful. Please, keep an open mind when trying native/hybrid wines and don’t let a broad generalization of their quality influence your decision-making or palate. I look forward to reporting on all of my adventures with native and hybrid wines, starting with my next scheduled trip to Southern Illinois in April.