Chances are if you are wine drinker, you are mainstream, which is nothing like that whole red state/blue state political definition/limitation. Nothing like that at all.
Wine mainstream is when you regularly enjoy a grape varietal that is defined as “classic vinifera.” Do you like and always drink chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, merlot, sauvignon blanc, and so on, which are grape varietals that originated in the Old World? These and many others are basic varieties of wine grapes and they are, no doubt, the core ingredients of the wines you probably drink on a regular basis.
The grape classification is known to scholars and geeks as vitis vinifera, and their historic origins are rooted (sorry, could not resist) all around the Mediterranean Basin, central Europe, and southwestern Asia. Most of these grapes’ ancestors go back a very long time, some over 6,000 years, when they were domesticated practically at the birth of agriculture, humans planting and harvesting all manner of fruits, vegetables and grains. Human civilization and society began with the hunters and the gatherers. Grapes were there. Cable television and cell phones came later. We will discuss whether that truly represents “progress” later in this lecture. (Not really. You don’t read down to find that reference.)
We can pretty much date the domestication of grapes that far back because domesticated grapes have different shaped seeds than wild grapes, and archeologists/scientists have found grape seeds in many old pieces of pottery at various sites in the Ancient World. And we know that our ancestors had knowledge of beer and winemaking by the residues found in ancient bowls and mugs. Did not take long, evidently, for our ancestors to find excellent uses for fresh fruits and grain. Beverages from fermented fruits made living conditions tolerable. Not great but tolerable.
The challenge to growing these classic grape varietals was that they are pretty finicky as to where they would grow and what quality of fruit they would produce. While grapes are prolific, they like what could be considered for most plants, bad growing conditions. They like stress. They like temperature swings, within a range. They like rocky soils. They don’t like water all the time. And they like the definition of the end of growing season, such as the onset of cold weather or rain. If you are wondering why Louisiana does not grow fine grapes, review the last several sentences. We literally don’t offer much that grapes like. Consumers, yes. Grape growers, not so much.
To overcome the shortcomings of weather and soils, scientists have created a whole line-up of grape varietals specifically designed to work within the prevailing conditions. Hybrids take the better part of a certain varietal and combine those plants with some local grape with the goal of creating a grape that yields good juice for winemaking in a place where it never could support such activity before. And now you know what the hell Luther Burbank was up to all those long nights in his lab. You thought he had some foxy assistant. Maybe, but that information is lost to history.
Anyway, hybrids are really something very cool. These are wines with which we are likely not all familiar (now really, when was the last time you had a beautiful Chardonel?) but they are pleasurable, interesting, and deliver qualities on the nose and the palate that are worthy of discussion and enjoyment. Hybrids could be that wine that you bring to the party to trick up your insufferable snob friends.
The answer to why I am bringing this up now is that I’ve just returned from judging the Atlantic Seaboard Wine Association competition, and am on my way to Purdue University to judge Indiana International, then on to East Lansing, Michigan for that state’s wine competition.
Here are a few suggestions on some new wines to try, all hybrids. These wines are award winners from various competitions mostly staged east of the Mississippi River, which is also where many of these grapes have been developed:
Blanc du Bois – Created in 1968 at the University of Florida, this hybrid is a blend of Golden Muscat with a few Florida varietals. The goal was to create a grapevine resistant to Pierce’s Disease, a condition rampant all along the soggy Gulf Coast. The grape is grown at Pontchartrain Vineyards on the Northshore in Bush, and all along the Coast from Houston to Florida. Actually named for Emile du Bois, an influential winemaker and grape grower in the Tallahassee area.
Chambourcin – Recent development, 1963, using French Rhone varietals. Red in color, with spicy notes, herbaceous, low tannin
Chardonel – Frost-hardy grape, a mix of Seyval Blanc and Chardonnay. Has not proliferated as expected with the “change” of Chardonnay grapes to make certain strains better resistant to quality development in cold temperatures.
Diamond Muscat – Prolific cross-bred cultivar that yields sweet, white juice even while ripening early in the season.
La Crescent – Also romantically known as MN 1166, this German hybrid is absolutely winter-hardy. Can achieve excellent sugar levels while maintaining fine acidity.
Müller-Thurgau – We are starting to see more of this white wine in our stores, thought to be a cross between Sylvaner and Riesling, but there is some considerable school of thought that the real base of the grapes is Chasselas de Courtiller and Madeleine Royal. Discuss among yourselves.
Niagara – An American creation, a cross between Concord and Cassady, this fruity white wine has a “grapey” flavor (odd, isn’t it, that as a wine term “grapey” is not a compliment). Niagara does make for some excellent table grapes. When it comes to making wine, this hybrid is best when blended with neutral white wine.
Noiret – Pronounced with a French finish (no “t), this hybrid actually was developed in that most French-American community of Geneva, New York. Ripens early. Steuben was the main cross-grape. Likely on the road to improving after a very difficult start in 1973.
Seyval - A French-American white hybrid that sometimes shows a bit thin in the finish. Solution: oak barrel aging. Loves cold-weather, which means acid levels are usually respectable.
Traminette - Quite new, 1966, found a home in upper New York but is now moving south to Virginia. Blend of several strains of Traminer (German white). Grapes are slightly green and produce well-balanced white wines, where sugars, acids and tannins are pleasant and enticing.
If you are truly an adventuresome wine lover, or are merely curious about these wines (and I am not certain how many are readily available locally), pick up a copy of Karen MacNeil’s The Wine Bible, and a few bottles of these discoveries. Sounds like a fun evening.