Hybrids have a bad rap, in wine as much as anything else. The vast majority of the wine on the market is made from a single species of grapes: Vitis vinifera. Merlot, Malbec, Chardonnay—all of it is vinifera.
But there are almost 100 other species of grapes, including some that are native to North America. (Vitis vinifera hails from the Near East regions around the Black Sea.) There are also many hybrid varieties, which are a cross between two Vitis grape varieties (almost always Vitis vinifera with another).
Most of these non-vinifera and hybrid grapes are not made into wine, however, because they taste quite different than what wine drinkers are accustomed to—and not usually in a good way. They are often very high in acidity but lacking in tannin; some produce wine with cloying, candied strawberry flavours, while others are described as “foxy” or musky, supposedly reminiscent of wet dog. Needless to say, they are often quite inferior to vinifera wines, and this led to most European wine nations banning the production of hybrid grape varieties.
There are always exceptions, however, and up until quite recently Canada was actually a hotbed of hybrid grapes. It was believed until only a few decades ago that vinifera varieties wouldn’t survive the Canadian winter, so during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Canadian grape growers focused on hardy, native North American or hybrid varieties. Unfortunately, this kept the industry well behind the rest of the world in terms of quality—most Canadian wine was overly sweetened plonk. It wasn’t until the establishment of the 1989 Free Trade Agreement with the US that Canada seriously revamped its wine industry, as this forced Canadian wines to compete on an open market. As a result, the vast majority of Canadian grapevines (much of which were hybrids) were ripped up and replanted with vinifera varieties.
But there are a few Canadian wineries that still make wines from hybrid varieties, albeit on a very limited scale—and they can be quite good. They’re not mind-blowing, but are certainly an interesting divergence worth seeking out, for the comparison to vinifera wines as much as for the simple curiosity of tasting a bit of Canadian wine history.
Areas on the periphery of Canada’s wine-growing regions (especially north of the Okanagan Valley and northeast of Niagara, and in Nova Scotia and Quebec) often still grow hybrids, as they can thrive where vinifera varieties simply die. The white hybrid Vidal is used to make the majority of icewine in Niagara, as its thick skin allows it to remain intact after freezing a lot better than its vinifera cousins. Several Canadian wineries also make wines from red hybrid grapes, both as a varietal wine and blended with vinifera varieties: Marechal Foch (often just called Foch), Baco Noir and Leon Millot are most common. Several wineries in the United States also use these grapes, typically in similar fringe wine regions that, like those in Canada, struggle to grow vinifera due to harsh winters. The white hybrid Seyval Blanc is common in New York’s Finger Lakes region, while the red hybrid Frontenac is common through northeastern North America.
If you’d like to grow grapes in your garden, hybrid varieties are the way to go—several of them can withstand Edmonton’s harsh winters quite well. They don’t make the best wine (but you certainly can do so, should you have the means and the motivation), but they are excellent table grapes. V
Quails’ Gate Old Vines Foch (Okanagan)
Henry of Pelham Baco Noir (Niagara)
Jost Leon Millot (Nova Scotia)
Inniskillin Vidal Icewine (Niagara)