The word hybrid is a commonly misunderstood viticultural term, so let’s shed some light on the subject. A hybrid grape is simply the offspring of two varietals that belong to different species. This can potentially happen as a natural event, through cross-pollination, but more often is the result of intentional efforts by botanists and vine breeders. We will get into a little more detail on the latter in just a moment.
First, we need to clarify the difference between a hybrid and a cross, with which hybrids are often confused. A cross occurs through the cross-pollination of two varietals of the same species. Classic examples abound within Vitis vinifera, the dominant species in winemaking. One such is the natural cross of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc, which produced Cabernet Sauvignon. One intentional example is Pinotage, a cross of Pinot Noir and Cinsault bred in South Africa in 1924.
Returning to intentional hybrids, let’s examine some reasons for these experiments. In the mid-to-late 1800s, the accidental introduction of the American root louse phylloxera to Europe quickly decimated the continent’s vineyards. From 1875 to 1889 in France, for example, production plummeted by about 75%. With the industry in serious peril, growers and winemakers frantically sought viable solutions. These included many attempts at hybridization, seeking to combine the positive flavor attributes of V. vinifera varieties with the disease resistance of American species. Ultimately, of course, it was discovered that V. vinifera vines grafted onto certain American rootstocks were no longer susceptible to phylloxera, and that issue at least was settled.
However, hybrid investigations have never ceased. Rootstock studies continued, and today many widely-used rootstocks are hybrids of multiple American species. Additionally, work into varietal hybrid grapes is quite widespread, with researchers seeking optimal combinations of characteristics. The specific goals vary somewhat by the intended location of the vines, but the general focus is on achieving good flavor, disease resistance, and cold hardiness. This work has been so frequent and wide-ranging that some modern hybrids have quite the complex family tree, being the result of as many as eight generations of lab-induced cross-pollinations.
Many hybrid grape varieties don’t produce good wine, but exceptions exist. Baco Noir – one of the few hybrids permitted to be used in France – is widely grown for use in Armagnac. Vidal is made into dry whites and also delicious icewines; it is grown in Canada and several U.S. states, including New York and Virginia. Seyval Blanc is grown in those same places and also in England; it too can make nice, dry whites. Other lesser-known hybrids like Rondo (red) and Orion (white) have proven to be viable in cold regions of northern Europe and produce serviceable wine.