Thursday, November 1, 2007

Interspecific Grapes Are a Good Thing

The few times I've had a chance to try varietal Norton/Cynthiana (the wines are commercially unavailable in Ontario) I've found some with aromas reminiscent of Vitis riparia-/rupestris-based (so-called "French-hybrid") reds. In my years of studying Ontario reds made from the common riparia-derived hybrids, I have come to understand the so-called "hybridy" aromatic palette as comprising aromas that can be essentially described as toasted grain, toasted coffee bean, charred coffee bean or coffee roastery, smoky buckwheat (think here of Eastern European kasha), and smoky hickory. At times, I have also gotten a vegetal leafiness in certain hybrid reds such as Baco and Foch and an aroma that's sort of grassy but in no way similar to the bell-pepper pyrazines that we associate with underripe Cabernet, for instance.

The ability of Vitis aestivalis to produce aromas reminiscent of riparia-based hybrids does not come as much of a surprise to me: both species are native to North America, so it could follow that in addition to sharing excellent cold hardiness and disease resistance they might also share certain innate chemical compounds that can produce those unique aromas when vinification takes place. I would also surmise that the presence of those compounds in Norton proper and riparia-derived interspecific crosses might be indicative of some kind of common evolutionary starting point. Some folks have noted occasional hints of methyl anthranilate in certain Nortons too (heck, even in Pinot Noir!), so here again the case is made for the possibility of an interspecific commonality.

As a wine enthusiast living in North America, I have come to understand these particular aromas not as flaws but as bespeaking the soul, if you will, of the archetypal native American red wine. I see those aromas decidedly as features, not as flaws. These charry/grainy aromas can only be understood as flaws when juxtaposed against a vinifera-oriented paradigm within which they have neither precedent nor meaning; taken as they are on their own, however, they are fully self-justified expressions of identity.

The established wine world uses vinifera as its yardstick, and therefore many palates are unattuned to the aromas in certain non-vinifera grape wines. Personally however, I am able to just as happily drink a Blumenhof Cynthiana and enjoy its charred-coffee-bean/woodsy aromas as I am able to enjoy a Pauillac or a Barbera for their individual characteristics. I can enjoy a good Barolo. I can enjoy a good Cab Sauvignon. I have been trying to understand, and feel that I do have a better understanding, of Pinot Noir in recent times. I can enjoy a Margaux or a Pauillac. BUT! - and here is the key - none of these wines reduces or cancels out my sincere interest in and appreciation of native varieties and hybrids, in which I find much to enjoy.

It is satisfying to seen an increasing number of people in cold-climate wine-growing circles converging in agreement as to the value of grape varieties that actually work in their climates and produce wines true to their origins.


  1. Hello Paul,
    I'm interested in your comments on hybrids and wines made with them. I'm a commercial grower of "warm climate" Frontenac in southern Missouri, USA. I'm interested in developing a conversation about new wines for the 21st century based on new hybrids.

    Frank Schmidt
    Branson Missouri

  2. Frank, thanks for the feedback. I particularly like your phrase, "new wines for the 21st century", as I believe that the new-generation hybrids are all about offering North Americans a chance at workable, home-grown viticulture - something that hasn't been especially practical up to recently, what with climatic restraints and all.

    At this point, I have two sites to recommend to you. One, Chateau Z, is in my list of websites in the right-hand border of the blog (you may need to scroll down to find it). The gentleman behind the project believes very much in the same thing as you do, and I am personally a great fan of his yearly vineyard spreadsheets in which he lists winemaking parameters for a whole host of grapes that he grows on-site.

    The other resource that I strongly suggest you consider is Larry Paterson's "Growing Wine in Cold Climates" list, which is an e-mail list not limited by any means to those in cold climates only... it is in fact a great discussion group for all things hybrid-related, and there are numerous growers of Frontenac there. You can drop Larry a line via his website,

    Cheers, and thanks again for taking the time to write.

  3. Having just started a home vineyard in Pennsylvania, I have become very interested in the hybrids because of climate conditions. Planted cab franc (my only vinefera) traminette, frontenac (for blending puposes only), and will receive an order of Nortons this spring. Am excited about the posibility of blending the reds in different percentages. I think hybrid blends will eventual produce the exemplary red wines from the cold climes.

  4. I agree that perhaps vinifera may not always be the yardstick in the future. I didn't care for wine until I tasted a Norton that was grown in Hermann, Mo a few miles away from where I live.

  5. I've heard that Tempranillo is a hybrid grape, can you confirm? find a parentage?

  6. Tempranillo is most definitely a Vitis vinifera, not a hybrid. More info: