Hybrid Power

After an evening in a local restaurant we were the last two customers left. Anyway, we got chatting with the chef and I mentioned that I ran wine tours. In return, he told us that his sommelier wife had put together the interesting wine list and urged me to try a new arrival. And here it is…

"Bacco", one of the few wines available in France made with a hybrid grape.

“Bacco” from Laurent and Christine Demeure and Pierre Rolle.

“Bacco” must be one of the very few wines commercially available in France that’s made with a hybrid grape, that is from a vine developed by crossing a European vine type – think pinot noir, syrah, merlot, chardonnay, etc – with another, usually North American, vine – concord, norton, and so on. Cross European folle blanche with US riparia grand glabre (which admittedly doesn’t sound very American) and you get baco noir, “black baco”, hence the name of the wine (using two Cs). And, at least in this case, it’s delicious, certainly good enough to put a goofy grin on my face. It might not be what you’d call complex, but if you like the taste of over-ripe strawberries and blackcurrant coulis then it will be just what the doctor ordered.

At one time hybrids were extremely popular in France for home winemaking as they’re hardier than pure European vines, making them easy to grow. Indeed I read that the grapes for “Bacco” come from isolated old trellised vines sprawling up homes around the village of Boisset-Saint-Priest, a wine wilderness south west of Lyon, and not an actual vineyard. (Given the tiny size of Boisset that seems pretty unlikely – how many vines are there? – but I’m not one to spoil a good story.)

But hybrids weren’t just for the amateurs. After the devastation of phylloxera in the mid-late 1800s, professional winemakers in France needed to replant their vineyards with vines that were resistant to the louse. One option would have been to plant native American vines which are naturally resistant. The vitis labrusca family (which includes the concord, catawba and niagara varieties), vitis æstivalis (norton), vitis riparia, vitis berlandieri and others all grow wild in North America and have at least some degree of phylloxera resistance. The problem is that they don’t necessarily make good wine.

Option two was to plant grafted vines. You get a grafted vine by splicing the fruiting part of your chosen European vine (all members of the phylloxera-prone vitis vinifera family) onto American roots. That way you should get the best of both worlds: phylloxera resistance with the flavour of cabernet sauvignon, riesling, or whatever the European element happens to be. Over time most of the world’s vineyards were planted with grafted vines.

But there was a third way: to plant hybrids. Plant breeders would cross two different sub-species (vinifera with riparia, vinifera with labrusca, etc) to form a new variety. Not all crosses were successful – some experiments produced vines without phylloxera resistance, others couldn’t shake off the flavours of their american parents, so-called “foxy” flavours – but many were widely planted. Baco noir’s sister grape, baco blanc, “white baco” or, less romantically, baco 22A, a cross of folle blanche and noah (which has riparia and labrusca parentage) still makes up almost half the plantings in the Armagnac region, famous for its brandy.

Other hybrids that took off in France include seyval blanc, the seibel family of grapes and black and white versions of villard, to such an extent that in the late ’60’s villard noir was France’s 5th most planted black grape and villard blanc the 3rd most planted white grape, ahead of sauvignon blanc. Total plantings of the two amounted to some 50,000 hectares. That’s roughly 125,000 acres!

Since then there’s been a sharp decline in French hybrid plantings. European legislation banned the use of hybrids for making “quality” wines* and so as the french began to drink less but “better” wine, and encouraged by a government-sponsored vine-pull scheme, villard and others started to disappear. By the late ’80’s villard blanc and noir combined covered just 8,000 ha of French vineyards, and now, less than thirty years later, the two grapes have almost disappeared.

This red wine from Ontario is made with a hybrid popular in Canada and the northern states of America, Marechal Foch.

This red wine from Ontario is made with Marechal Foch, a hybrid popular in Canada and the northern states of the United States.

But is there hope for hybrids? Outside Europe, and especially in North America, hybrids never really went away. One of the benefits of having North American ancestry is that many of the hybrids are tolerant of the extreme cold, allowing wine to be made in parts of Canada or around the Finger Lakes where European vinifera vines would be killed. And we’re talking about some great wines like vidal ice wine, into the bargain. On a lesser scale, hybrids such as rondo and regent allow English winemakers to make red wine while chambourcin grows in the high altitude vineyards of Colorado (snow-covered, it seems, for half the year).

Even in France, there is a growing acceptance that the right hybrids might have their place. Cépages Oubliés (“Forgotten Grapes”), an organisation that campaigns for the acceptance of hybrids, points out that their natural disease resistance makes them perfect for organic farming. It should be self-evident that minimising vineyard treatments is better for both the land and the vineyard workers. Surely that alone makes them worth another try?



* My use of the words quality and better isn’t intended to imply that hybrids can only make plonk (“Bacco” is proof to the contrary). It’s just that under European legislation there is a distinction made between what it calls “table wine” and “quality wine” (although, frankly, I’ve had table wines that were hugely better than some so-called quality wines). In France, quality wine (in the legal sense) is labelled “Appellation d’Origine Protegée” or AOP for short (formerly AOC, where the C stood for Controlée) and anything else is table wine. You can use hybrids for table wine but not quality wine, although since the ’30’s France has completely banned six hybrids on the grounds that drinking them will make you mad(!): noah (despite the fact that it is a parent of baco blanc), clinton, jacquet (on the list of grapes authorised to make Châteauneuf-du-Pape until 1935), othello, isabelle and herbemont.

Note: This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours where we like a bit of the unusual. But there are plenty of posts about normal Rhône wines both here and on our Facebook page.

PS sorry about the quality of the Bacco photo. It was taken on an old Nokia mobile with a camera resolution can be counted on the fingers of one hand. I took the Georgian Hills photo from their website. I hope that they excuse the fact that I didn’t ask permission on the grounds that I’m giving free advertising to their wares.

One Response to “Hybrid Power”

  1. Bob says:

    I’ve been to one winery in Canada’s Niagara area that makes a Baco Noir, and it’s quite good. Although Niagara Peninsula wineries now principally make wines from Vinifera grapes, the hybrids haven’t gone away.