Hybrid Vines: A History of Wine Snobbery
By Kate Maclean
One recent rainy morning, I posted a photo on Instagram of the items I was taking to a friend’s for brunch: a bounty of colorful eggs from my hens; a loaf of fresh coriander and raisin sourdough from my oven; and a bottle of 2018 Lupo in Bocca from the La Garagista Winery just 20 miles from my home in Barnard, Vermont. The label bore a quick description of the bottle: “Rosé Wine of Vermont.” The very first comment on my post was by a dear friend from Paris who quipped, “Rosé from VT? I don’t know whether to laugh or cry … Or just drink.”
Of course, such a gut reaction about a New England wine isn’t surprising. Long have the wines of the region been bedraggled by such epithets as “jelly jar juice” and “foxy.” Unsophisticated wines for an unsophisticated palate. So while the comment didn’t surprise me, the wine did. This rosé was one of the most original, nuanced, and delightful wines I’ve had the pleasure of tasting. We drank the whole bottle eagerly. The dichotomy of the comment and the bottle made me wonder: Where did this widespread snobbery against New England wine originate?
In order to understand how and why New England wines are assumed inferior, we must first understand the history of the American grape versus the European grape. An American grape (likely Vitis labrusca) visited its European cousin, V. vinifera, on the heels of the Industrial Revolution in the mid-1800s. The American vines were brought to be planted as curiosities in gardens and on private estates, not to make wine. One was showcased in the Jardins de Luxembourg. Unfortunately, V. labrusca brought an uninvited friend: the aphid known as grape phylloxera. These aphids enjoy the leaves of V. labrusca, but they love the roots of V. vinifera. They fed off the roots of European vines, and, in combination with the resulting fungal infections, left V. vinifera plants girdled and dying. American rootstocks were immune to the aphid, but within a few decades a vast majority of European vines had been destroyed by phylloxera. By the 1870s, half of French wine production had ceased.
It took decades for the French government to come to terms with the discovery, but it was Jules-Émile Planchon who correctly identified the aphids in the late 1860s. The French government attempted a program known as la défense, in which an incentive of 300,000 francs was offered for insecticidal or nonchemical treatments that would cure V. vinifera of the accursed phylloxera. Many different cures were proposed, from flooding entire vineyards to using goat urine. Ultimately, the government gave up on la défense and moved, begrudgingly, to la réconstitution.
Because V. labrusca rootstock was resistant, European vintners were faced with three options: watch their vines continue to die and then find another profession; cross-pollinate the vines to create a hybrid; or graft V. vinifera onto the rootstock of V. labrusca. Most chose the latter, and V. vinifera grapes grew to thrive once more atop some very resistant and hardy American rootstock. Some vintners, however, chose to create hybrids of their vines with the American vines, resulting in vigorous plants that had the resistant qualities of V. labrusca with the taste profile of V. vinifera. American imports at once nearly destroyed, and then rescued, V. vinifera vines.
After recovering from the Great Wine Blight, the French government decided to enact legislative and cultural revenge against the American grape. In 1935, France outlawed all hybrids, forbidding them to be planted and forbidding the wine made from those already growing to be labeled with the all-important Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) stamp. (Read “Certified AOC” below to learn more about the system’s regulations on wine.)
After 1935, people began to rip hybrids out of fields, but not fast enough for the French government. Just after World War II, the government refocused its attention on the issue. In the 1950s, in an attempt to support a now decades-old ban on hybridization, the government offered 1,500 francs per hectare as an incentive to French farmers to destroy what was left of any hybrid vines. More plantings were uprooted, but still 70 percent of the hybrids remained. The government swiftly switched from carrot to stick, imposing a fine of 3,000 francs per hectare of hybrids left growing, and even threatening short prison stints for those vintners not in compliance. The stick worked, and by the end of the 1960s the hybrids were all but destroyed, leaving V. vinifera proudly growing on the rootstalk of her American cousin without the potential for any further accidental or intentional crossbreeding with American grapes.
In concert with the ban, incentives, fines, and threats, the government embarked on a baseless propaganda campaign against the very character of American grapes, citing that the hybrids had dangerous levels of methanol in them, which was said to cause madness. This link has since been debunked, but the grapes were guilty until proven innocent, and it’s been an uphill battle to recover respect for V. labrusca. As recently as 2001, the European Union’s agricultural commissioner was quoted as saying the ban was because of “gustatory defects,” and then reiterated the methanol fallacy.
The infant American wine industry was subordinate to, and run by the rules of, European taste and dominance. Just as the Romans had brought their wine — and their vines — to Western Europe in 125 B.C., wine-loving Europeans brought their vines to the Americas. Vineyards first planted in California by the Spanish were of V. vinifera stock. These vines were only capable of growing in mild and gentle Californian weather, similar to European wine-producing climates, and required much coddling and, eventually, many pesticides. The resulting wines of these vines conditioned the American palate to European taste, and the hybrid debacle of the 19th and 20th centuries coalesced into the dominance of V. vinifera.
When vintners in America’s colder climes began pioneer plantings, they needed a grape that could stand up to the harsh temperatures of the region. European grapes, such as ‘Pinot Noir’ and ‘Chardonnay,’ don’t grow well in such severe climates; they prefer mild and dry weather with spells of water at precise times. American grapes grew naturally and easily in the cold, rainy hills of the Northeast, but their flavor was too extreme and foreign for the continental palate. So hybrid breeding programs began around the country, including one at the University of Minnesota. Here, viticulturists were in search of a grape that could answer to both palate and climate. In recent decades, hybrid grapes, such as the ‘Marquette,’ ‘La Crescent,’ and ‘Frontenac,’ have become staples in northern American vineyards. They’re some of the very same grapes that are grown by the vintners of the unjustly maligned rosé from the beginning of our story.
With the power of these hybrids and some very entrepreneurial vintners, the northeastern American states have opened up a new world of wine. And yet, the taboo of a hybrid wine persists.
Deirdre Heekin, co-owner of La Garagista, noted that when she started selling hybrid wines in 2010, simply removing the varietal names from the labels was enough to convince sommeliers to give her wines a chance. The experiment worked, and her vineyard, though small compared to the megalithic estates that dominate California and France, has received many accolades for its exceptional wine. Heekin has served as a mentor in her field, with her protégés going off to make their own wine under her inspirational leadership.
One could argue that the future of global winemaking lies with such hybrid vines. Climate change has already begun to affect vineyards and their harvests both in California and in France. There’s a fine line between “dry and hot” and “too dry and too hot.” In the last decade, many vineyards have found themselves in the sweet spot where the vines are growing really well and producing some truly fantastic vintages, but the vintners can see the meteorological trends and know that in another decade, their vineyards might be in trouble.
Many growers are packing up and moving north. California vintners are increasingly moving into Oregon and Washington. Argentinians have pushed vineyards up into the higher elevations of the mountains. French growers don’t have many places to go; the country is small and the land is already intensely cultivated. Hybrids may once more be the salvation of France’s wine industry.
In 2018, the AOC adopted a few changes allowing for hybrid experimentation, as shifts in weather caused drops in production in two of France’s prized regions: Champagne and Bordeaux. The last century of strict growing standards has created an industry that’s slow to adapt to a rapidly changing climate. However, thanks to the lax laws of the U.S., the tireless experimentation of viticulturists at American universities, and the pioneering stewardship of hybrid vineyards by vintners such as Heekin, growers in France will have access to a fount of knowledge and a trove of hybrid grapes whenever their government relents.
The AOC code of law controls the production of region-specific goods in France, and wine is no exception. It’s a formidable and exhaustive bureau that’s dedicated to preserving the terroir and heritage of each region in the country. The minutiae the AOC regulates is extensive and unlike any sort of regulating body vintners come up against in the U.S. For a bottle to sell at the high price that the coveted AOC seal begets, the bottle’s vineyard must adhere to the strict standards set for grape varietals, harvest, aging requirements, and vineyard practices, right down to how vines are trellised.
Kate MacLean shares a farm in the green and chilly hills of central Vermont with her children and husband, extended family, and 100 furred and feathered beasts. Follow her on Instagram @LongestAcresFarm.
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