The second half of the 19th century proved to be a disastrous period for European viticulture.
A shipment of vines from the U S A arrived in France (1865) for research purposes and along came one of the most devastating vine diseases in history.
North American grapes varieties belonging to vitis labrusca, - rotundifolia, -munsoniana and others are relatively immune to the disease called phylloxera vastatrix, but not the European vitis vinifera family vines. The grape varieties belonging to this family yield the best wines.
When phylloxera stated decimating European vineyards in quick succession causing havoc to growers and wineries French and German viniculture experts, nursery men, researchers and growers felt compelled to experiment with crossbreeding vitis labrusca with vitis vinifera grape varieties in an attempt to create a vine resistant to this dreadful disease. Eventually, their efforts resulted in vines with desirable characteristics in a number of regions. Some were early ripening, others resistant to mildews and chlorosis, yet others produced more than average, or were early budding, just to name a few .
Hybrids are the off springs of two or more varieties of different species, as distinct from a cross between two varieties of the same species.
European bureaucrats refer to hybrids as interspecific crosses. Hybrids originating from crossings of vitis vinifera and vitis aestivalis, or vitis labrusca or vitis rotundifolia grape varieties qualify, at least in the minds of European bureaucrats, as such.
Hybrids occur naturally or can be created under controlled conditions. Syrah for example was created by nature (dureza from Ardeche and Mondeuse blanche, from Savoie both in France), and Cabernet Sauvignon (Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc) by crosspollination. Generally, hybrids are created with a specific goal in mind pending on need.
Muller-Thurgau (Riesling x Sylvaner) was developed by Professor Mueller from Thurgau, Switzerland. At the time he was working in Geisenheim, Germany, in search of a grape that would ripen early, produce a lot, but taste and smell like Riesling, the most important and flavourful grape variety of German viticulture.
Since then, many German researchers created a number of hybrids. Some are better known than others. A few are shown below:
Bacchus (Riesling x Sylvaner)
Kerner (Trollinger x Riesling)
Morio-Muscat (Sylvaner x Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc))
Scheurebe (Rielsing x Sylvaner)
Optima (Sylvaner x Riesling X Muller-Thurgau)
Ehrenfelser (Riesling X Sylvaner)
Reichensteiner (Muller-Thurgau X Maldeleine d’Angevin X Calabreser Froehlich)
Freisamer (Sylvaner X Rulaender)
Kanzler (Muller-Thurgau X Sylvaner)
Huxelrebe (Gutedel X Courtillier Musque)
Siegerrebe (Madeleine d’Angevin X Gewuerztraminer)
Still today, German researchers create hybrids, sometimes crossing two or more hybrids in stages.
In France, many viticulturists and researchers were involved in developing hybrids. Kuhlmann, in Alsace; Seibel, Couderc, Ravat, Baco and Seyve are the most famous.
Most of the hybrids they created were once planted in France, but today practically all are banned. However, they are used in New York State, Ontario, British Columbia, Australia, Japan and Brazil.
The most popular French hybrids are Baco Noir( Folle Blanche x vitis riparia) ripens early and Baco Blanc (Folle Blanche X Noah (vitis labrusca X vitis riparia) ripens late but has vigour; Couderc Noir (Jaeger 70 x Vitis vinifera) vigorous and resistant to fungal diseases; Chamborucin (uncertain parentage) vigorous, deep coloured and good taste; Marechal Foch (Goldriesling (Riesling x Courtiller Musque) x riparia x rupestris) ripens early, vigorous and resistant to fungal diseases; Leon Millot (same background as Foch), ripens early, is vigorous, suitable in regions with short growing seasons; Ravat Blanc (Seyval 8724 X Chardonnay) early maturing but prone to mildew and bunch rot; Aurore (Seyval 788 x Seyval 29) winter hardy; Chancellor (Seyval 5163 x Seyval 800) vigorous and high yielding; De Chaunac (Seyval 5.163) early ripening and productive; Seyval Blanc (S 5656 x 4986) resistant to downy mildew’ Vidal (Ugni Blanc x Seyval Blanc) resistant to downy mildew, winter hardy and thick skinned, thus suitable for ice wine production.
Many viticulturists also devoted their research to developing rootstock for various soil types but more importantly phylloxera-resistant. Some of the most popular rootstocks today are riparia gloire, rupestris St George, 3309 C, 5 BB, Vialla and SO 4 in North America; St George, riparia gloire de Montpellier, SO4, 5 BB, Vialla, Grezot I, 101 – 14 MGT and RSB1 Berlandieri-Colombard No.2 in Europe and elsewhere.
Root stock selection is important factor given soil conditions and requires attention. Grape variety is then fused on the rootstock.
In the U S A, vitis berlandieri, vitis aetivalis, vitis candicans are used to create hybrids. A few American nurserymen created hybrids by crossbreeding vitis vinifera grape varieties with native American species, some of which are still bearing fruit in New York states.
(Catawba, Concord, Delaware, Noah and Othello )
They are winter hardy and resistant to phylloxera but their excessive fruitiness, caused by the presence of anthranilate, imparts an alien smell and flavour profile. Most of these grapes are perfectly suitable for grape juice and jelly but not for fine wine.
Recently large volume wineries started infusing fruit extracts (peach, apricot, cherry blueberry) to these overwhelmingly fruity wines and have been able to attract millions of people to drink wine.
Many hybrids created by nature have gained respectable reputations. Some created in nurseries enjoy popularity in a few markets, but largely, hybrids have proved to be of limited popularity.
Article contributed by Hrayr Berberoglu, a Professor Emeritus of Hospitality and Tourism Management specializing in Food and Beverage. Books by H. Berberoglu