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Lieb Behind the Scenes

Lieb Behind the Scenes – What are Hybrid Grapes?

June 22, 2022

Y’all liked my blog about natural winemaking so much, I’ve decided to use this opportunity to address another question I get asked often lately: What are hybrid grapes?

Context for this question usually starts with a can of Bridge Lane Bubbles. On the back, it lists “GRAPES: 43% riesling, 22% muscat, 20% la crescent, 15% cayuga.”

I’m sure you’ve heard of Riesling. But like my friend, Joe, you’ve likely not heard of the other grapes.

Joe while sipping Bubbles in my back yard: “What the hell is La Crescent?”

Me: “It’s a hybrid grape.”

Joe: “What’s a hybrid grape?”

And here we are.

Newsflash: There are 10,000 known grape varieties in the world.

How many can you name? Cab Sauv, Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir?

Guys, there is more to life!

So, how can we make sense of these 10,000 varieties? What categories do they fall under? Where do hybrids fit? And why is Lieb using them in our wine? Let’s break this down.

The first step in breaking down these varieties is to talk about species of grapes. “Vitis” means grapevines so they all start with this prefix or genus. There are known to be about 80 species within this genus. Here are the major ones to know (*channeling my sommelier textbook):

1) Vitis Vinifera – These are the European wine grapes that we all know and love (i.e. the ones you can name)

2) Vitis Riparia – These are grapes native to northeast North America which are mainly used for their rootstock because of their cold hardiness and disease resistance

3) Vitis Amurensis – These grapes are mainly grown in China and Russia and are extremely cold hardy. If Vinifera tried to grow in these locations they’d suffer a miserable freezing death

4) Vitis Labrusca – No, not Lambrusco – the light red sparkling wine from Italy – lab-ruh-sca. These grapes are native to northeastern North America, like Riparia, and are widely grown in New York State. They’ve been dubbed “foxy” because of their unique, earthy, arguably unpleasant aromas. They’re mostly used to make table grapes and juice, not wine. Concord (red) and Niagara (white) are examples

So Vinifera = what we know, Riparia = thank you for your rootstock, Amurensis = bad ass grapes from China, Labrusca = NY table grapes. Got it.

What about hybrids? Well, while Vinifera grapes produce the best, most flavorful wines in the world, they’re wimpy and not resistant to many diseases and frost. And while the other species are cold, disease and pest hardy, they’re known to have undesirable flavors and compounds. What to do?

Bingo. Cross them. Unlike native or single species grapes, hybrid grapes are varieties that are a product of crossing two or more species, usually Vinifera X Riparia or Vinifera X Labrusca. By bringing together the best parts of each species to make a new whole, hybrids are the superior grape! They should be planted everywhere!

Well, not so fast. Only about 500 of the 10,000 varieties in the world are hybrid.

Steeped in tradition and unwilling to compromise their sacred Vinifera, European winemakers and wine drinkers have been slow to embrace hybrids. Many of them are even banned! And in fairness, many hybrids do not make good wine.

Americans, though, are *starting* to come around. In sommelier circles I’m hearing more and more about hybrids. Wine writers are paying attention to them too.  

Despite growing Vinifera only, Lieb started sourcing hybrids – like La Crescent – from the Finger Lakes several years ago. We blend small percentages of them into several of our Bridge Lane wines including Bubbles and Rosé. Had our rosé lately? Surprise! You tasted a hybrid.

Why do we use them in our wine? 3 reasons:

  1. Some hybrids are delicious! They’ve been refined by scientists over time and are high-quality in flavor and composition, DARE I SAY even rivalling Vinifera grapes
  2. Climate change, man. With rising humidity and more frequent extreme weather events in New York, it’s getting harder and harder to successfully grow Vinifera in a sustainable, eco-conscious way. Hybrids are tougher and require less use of chemicals in our vineyards. For this reason alone, they very well may be the future of the New York wine industry
  3. Price. Hybrids cost less to grow and therefore sell for less which means we’re able to keep Bridge Lane prices down and still provide value in this crazy inflationary world in which we now live. Looking at you, BL box wine!

Do you like good wine, care about the environment and don’t want to overpay for wine? If so, be like Joe. Drink Bridge Lane Bubbles, Rosé or Sauvignon Blanc. They all have hybrids grapes in them.

Or go one step further and seek out some of the 100% hybrid wines that are being made in the Finger Lakes. I recommend Glenora Seyval Blanc, Fox Run Traminette and Heron Hill Baco Noir to start.

Maybe, just maybe, you’ll be at the forefront of a hybrid grape revolution in America.

Ami Opisso
General Manager & Certified Sommelier

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