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Are Hybrids the Future of Wine?

Are Hybrids the Future of Wine?

Photo Credit: Malcolm Stewart

Say the word “hybrids” and often the first thing that comes to mind are cold-hardy grapes. Meant to withstand freezing temperatures, grapes such as Frontenac and Traminette are cultivated in Minnesota, Vermont, Canada, and other regions that aren’t hospitable to many vinifera vines. But, over the past few decades, new schools of research have focused on creating disease-resistant grapes. Bred from crossings of popular vinifera, winemakers in Germany, France, and Virginia are finding success with these new hybrids. They don’t require as many—if any—chemical treatments, and make organic farming an easier proposition. But beyond their sustainable attributes, hybrids are kickstarting a conversation about the future of wine, both in the glass and within our broader culture.

The Creation of Hybrids

The process of creating hybrids is long and arduous. After identifying grapes (often wild) with desired attributes, such as resistance to fungus, pollen is taken from the resistant vine during flowering and cross-pollinated with vinifera, such as Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon. The resulting fruit from this crossing is harvested four months later and seeds are removed. In order for seeds to germinate, they go through a three-month-long chilling process. After, seedlings go into a greenhouse and from the first leaves they produce (as few as 2 or 3), researchers get a genetic prediction of the plant’s traits. A selection of these plants are then selected for the next round of crossings. 

In the past, random samplings would be chosen as parent material for rounds of crossings, but advanced DNA fingerprinting technology now helps scientists identify which offspring carry more disease-resistant DNA. “You can think about it like siblings,” says Joy Ting, research enologist at Virginia Winemakers Research Exchange, which is currently partnering with the United States Department of Agriculture for a winemaker-led research intensive into hybrids. “Some of them are going to be tall like their mother, and some of them might be short like their father.” This ability to make important assessments earlier accelerates the timeline for creating hybrids. “So you try to choose, ahead of time, the ones that will have traits that you’re looking for without having to fully grow them,” says Ting.

With disease-resistant hybrids, the goal is to incorporate as much vinifera background as possible so a Cabernet Franc-based grape tastes like, well, Cabernet Franc (or close to it).  After the first generation of seedlings is selected, they are crossed again with vinifera, and the whole cycle repeats. In total, it takes about three to four years to complete a cycle, and it’s expected that to get to a viable grape, at least four to five cycles need to be completed. Using a little back-of-the-envelope math, that means it could take about two decades for grapes to come online.

PIWI Varieties

Photo Credit: Malcolm Stewart

At the forefront of the hybrids movement is PIWI International, an organization that studies and promotes a class of hybrids known as Pilzwiderstandsfähige Reben (PIWI). Founded in 1999 by Swiss researchers Dr. Pierre Basler and Valentin Blattner, the organization has successfully introduced approximately 15 varieties into vineyards across Germany, Italy, Canada, and beyond. 

Germany, in particular, is finding much success with PIWIs, which growers started cultivating back in 1967. Currently, three percent of vineyards are planted to PIWIs, according to Wines of Germany. That small acreage is expected to dramatically increase: nurseries are currently struggling to meet inventory demands, but once vines become available, an eager clientele awaits.  

One proponent of PIWIs is Timo Dienhart of Deinhart Wein in Mosel, Germany. “For me, it is a piece of the future,” says Deinhart, who cultivates Sauvignac, Cabernet Blanc, Regent, Cabernet Cortis, and Satin Noir. It’s also an investment not to be taken lightly. “We replace vineyards after an average of 40 years, so [planting PIWIs] is a decision for an entire generation,” he says. 

Can Hybrids Be Cool?

Even if growers are excited about the grapes, it will take longer for customers to understand PIWIs, and for a true revolution to happen. One person working to accelerate public excitement about PIWIs is Eva Vollmer of Weingut Eva Vollmer in the Rheinhessen. No stranger to innovation, Vollmer claims to be the first female winemaker with an eponymous winery in the region. She’s now trying to raise excitement for—and broad acceptance of— hybrid grapes.

 A name change is the first step in giving PIWIs a glow-up. “PIWIs is not a nice name,” she says. “And ‘fungus-resistant’ isn’t good for marketing, either.” She uses the term “Future Wine” to talk about hybrids and her 50-winery-member-strong organization, Zukunftsweine (“Future Wine”), focuses on marketing and rebranding PIWI wines. Through an online wine shop, seminars at key sustainability summits, design advice, and other events, Future Wine hopes to reframe hybrids as the new cool-kid wines.

Natural Wine as Laying the Groundwork

LeighAshley Harden pouring “Mise” 2022 orange wine at Common Wealth Crush | Photo Credit: Malcolm Stewart

The inherently sustainable nature of hybrids attracts winemakers who consider themselves part of the natural wine movement. Pierre Caizergues and Antonin Bonnet, founders of Pierre & Antonin Wines, in Languedoc, France, say PIWIs dovetail with their winemaking philosophies.  “[We like] the fact that we don’t have to spread any copper or sulfur in the vineyard, and can reduce our gas consumption by going through the vines 3 or 4 times a year instead of 15 to 20 times,” they write in an email. “This is also a big saving on manpower and we can devote our time to natural winemaking, not to mention the saving on water and overall reduction of carbon footprint.”

Because people are still learning about the organoleptic qualities of hybrids, conversation around these grapes sounds very reminiscent of the discussions that took place (and are still ongoing) around natural wines when the category first started gaining traction. People didn’t quite understand cloudy wines, pet-nats, or many of the flavors they found in this new category of “natty” wines. 

“If you step back from the classical idea that wine must taste like this, it must taste like it’s French or Italian, it leads to the thought experiment of, what if wine culture had found [hybrids or native American species] noble, then everybody would think that was the way one should taste,” says Ben Jordan, co-founder at Common Wealth Crush, a winemaking collective in Waynesboro, Virginia. “If you start to allow yourself to think like that, then you open yourself up to the idea that it’s okay that things taste differently. You should lean into that because the wine will taste more complete. It’ll taste more authentic and honest if you’re not trying to make the grape taste like a grape from France. I think it took the natural wine movement to make people feel okay about it.”

It begs the question: If natural wines can gain broad acceptance, can hybrids? 

Societal Shifts

Winemaking facility at Common Wealth Crush | Photo Credit: Malcolm Stewart

For Vollmer, hybrids sit at an inflection point of society’s needs versus wants. She notes that wine has long been a part of Germany’s history, but today, it’s seen as more of a luxury product. “It’s not a potato. It’s not rain. You can survive without wine,” she says. “So now, wine has to ask the question, do we have something better to offer to save the world for our children?” She believes the ideas and learnings gleaned through cultivating hybrids can be shared with other industries and further create a global dialogue about ways to better serve the planet.

Hybrids may also prove to be instrumental in growing diversity in the wine industry. Jordan of Common Wealth Crush sees how hybrids present an opportunity for underrepresented winemakers: fruit costs less than vinifera, and with little expectation in terms of character in the public’s purview, winemakers can interpret and create something completely new and make their mark in the broader industry. 

When barriers are broken down as to how wine can be made, and who can make wine, it invites different perspectives around taste and flavor — and it opens the conversation up to what is wine, exactly? While all these questions are unknown for now, one thing is certain: the future of wine is going to look very different.