GRAPE CROSSES & HYBRIDS
I was looking through family albums and came across a photo of my parents picnicking with a baby in diapers holding a beer bottle. As I stared closer, I noticed the baby was me! “Mom,” I said, “did you intoxicate your first born?” She laughed and said, “No, you intoxicated yourself!” My parents had gone biking with a group of friends in the Everglades and later set up a picnic on the grass with snacks and cold beer. Allegedly, I grabbed an empty beer, leaned my head back, and drank the last tiny sip at the bottom of the bottle. “You were just copying the adults,” my mom said defending herself. Apparently this drop of alcohol was my baptism into spirits; the first step to my wine destiny!
Despite all the school placement tests suggesting I should become an Accountant, it is not surprising I ended up in the wine business. My first job in the beverage industry was pouring samples for customers in supermarkets and wine shops. It was not the most intellectually challenging job, but it did allow me to try numerous new wines each week. One of the first wines I sampled was made from a cross varietal, which is a grape varietal created by crossing two different grape varieties of the same vine species. Vitis Vinifera, for example, is a European vine species with approximately ten thousand varieties, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, and Riesling, among others. The cross I sampled was called Symphony, which was created in the late 1940s by a professor at UC Davis in California. The Symphony varietal is a cross between Muscat of Alexandria, a white grape used primarily for raisin production, and Grenache Gris, a pinkish-toned varietal used in rosé winemaking. Ironstone Vineyards in California has won numerous gold and silver medals for their Symphony, a crisp, intensely floral wine with hints of ripe apricot that pairs deliciously with spicy foods and Thai cuisine.
The purpose of crossing two grape varietals is to create a new varietal embodying traits from each, such as resistance to fungus, tolerance to severe heat, or specific flavors, aromas, or acidity levels for winemaking. In the 1920s, a professor at South Africa’s Stellenbosch University was trying to do just that when he created Pinotage, a cross between the renowned Burgundian varietal, Pinot Noir, and Cinsaut (san-soh), a fruity, high-yielding grape with higher resistance to drought used for wine blending and rosé production in southern France. Pinotage typically produces deep-colored wine with medium acidity and ripe fruit flavors. The varietal has not yet earned global respect, but various producers, including Rijks, Windmeul, and Durbanville Hills, have been working to tame the overly pungent flavors and bring out the earthy undertones of Africa’s signature grape.
The Vitis Vinifera species is in one of about sixty vine species. Other species include Vitis Labrusca, grown in North America, and Vitis Amurensis, grown throughout Asia. Contrary to a cross, a hybrid varietal is the offspring of two varieties of different species, which can be created naturally by cross-pollination, but are often manmade to achieve specific results. Vidal Blanc, for example, is a white hybrid created in an effort to develop a grape for cognac production that could withstand extremely cold temperatures. The successful hybrid is now used for ice wine production in Canada because of its ability to maintain high levels of sugar and acidity during cold climates. Vidal Blanc often produces sweet wines with notes of grapefruit and pineapple. A hybrid varietal can be crossed with yet another species to produce a new hybrid. In fact, Vidal Blanc is an extended hybrid created from Ugni Blanc, a grape used for brandy production, and Rayon d’Or, a winter-hardy hybrid made from Seibel and Aramon du Gard, which are both hybrids themselves.
Crosses and hybrids are an extension of the thousands of grape varietals worldwide. These novel combinations allow winemakers to meld the best attributes of different varietals they may have otherwise had difficulty cultivating, and, in turn, expand the vast spectrum of taste possibilities.