Are hybrids the future of the wine industry?

Pictured: The hybrid, Petite Milo. Photo courtesy of Beaufort Winery.

No one would plant a mango tree in the arctic and expect good results.

And when the first frost kills it, only a lunatic would respond "but I like to eat mangos from India so that's what I'll plant no matter where I move!".

Yet, this attitude dominates Canadian wine tourism.

And, it's on both sides of the aisle. Some consumers think "well, the owner/winemaker must know what they're doing", meanwhile when you ask the owner why they planted cabernet sauvignon they say "that's what I like to drink when I'm in Napa". Or, some owners think they are beholden to the mass market consumer demanding "bold reds" because serving a niche crowd and constantly having to run educational campaigns is scary and tiring.

Or, from another angle: imagine touring Chablis or Mosel and being choked that they don't produce heady, leathery purple bruisers, instead of simply giving yourself over to their magical, life-changing chardonnay and riesling.

That brings us back to Canada, and the development of hybrids.

I learned something new recently.

Here, we often call all the weird and wild grapes "hybrids", but a distinction should be made between a hybrid and a more simple cross.

Hybrid: made from crossing European wine grapes (vitis vinifera) with another grape species (typically something native to North America, but often unknown).

Cross: made from two European vinifera grapes.

So the grape Ortega is actually just a cross, not a hybrid. This is my recent discovery. I had always called it a hybrid before.

Actual hybrids are grapes like Marechal Foch and Epicure.

One reason behind creating these hybrids was to have a winter-hardy grape to grow in much harsher, cold climates. But some people believe that they are basically worker-grapes that can never achieve the height of the great European grapes.

It was definitely true that early wines from the hybrids were nothing special, giving reason to most of these varieties being ripped out in Canada around the late 1960's to early 1970's and replaced with vinifera.

But the science and technology of winemaking has skyrocketed since then. And more experienced winemakers are working here, and the vineyards are older, with more records being kept and a better idea of how to handle the changing seasons and the common challenges faced.

Plus, like I said, it's an uphill battle to get even passionate wine consumers to embrace the hybrids.

So, people pulling into a tasting room of a younger region north of the Okanagan, let's say, are going to gravitate toward the winery making merlot and chardonnay over the winery with bubbles and skin-contact whites made from hybrids. But then they would be missing the serious winemakers with an actual eye to building a fine wine future, in favor of business people who feel held hostage by those with contempt for their region.

I've been exploring some hybrids from around Canada these last few months.

And let me tell you, the results are encouraging!

I'll attempt one last example and then shut up about it.

Let's say the haters are right, and hybrids can never be as good as European grapes. Just for the sake of illustration, we'll rate vinifera as being capable of 5 out of 5 (perfect, life changing wine). And hybrid, no matter what anyone does, is only capable of 4 out of 5 at best.

Well, in the limitations of our climate and environment and experience-level and vineyard age, maybe the best we can hope for with the vinifera is a 3/5. It may be capable of more, say, when grown in La Romanée under a 10th generation winemaking family who can afford to sort away anything but the most perfect grapes. But not here.

Whereas, when choosing the right hybrid for our area, under the hand of a talented winegrower who has devoted their life to it, we can more consistently nail a "perfect" hybrid (4/5 in our example, and so higher than the 3/5 vinifera).

I'm just giving you ways to consider this issue with an open mind. And so you don't miss some excellent juice out there in favor of something mediocre simply because you recognize the name.

And, if you're convinced you want to give hybrids a try, a foray into the wines from Beaufort Winery would be a great place to start:


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