Wine

The Emergence of Non-Vinifera Wines

A pioneering group of American winemakers are demonstrating the potential of hybrids

Krista Scruggs of Zafa Wines. Photo courtesy of Krista Scruggs.

Hybrid grapes don’t get much love. France bans them in classified wines, except for Baco Blanc in Armagnac distillation. Austria permits their use in the making and selling Uhudler wines in Südburgenland but affords them the lowest labeling standard—Wein (formerly Tafelwein). In the United States, despite all the cold winters these grapes hardily endure, they don’t always receive the warmest welcome among wine buyers.  

Hybrids, or deliberate crossings between two vine species—for example, Vitis vinifera and Vitis labrusca—make up less than 5 percent of global vineyards, according to José Vouillamoz, Ph.D., an authority on hybrid grapes and a coauthor of Wine Grapes: A Complete Guide to 1,368 Vine Varieties, Including Their Origins and Flavours. “Hybrids were created for various reasons, but mainly to provide resistance against biotic stresses, like fungal diseases, and abiotic stresses, like frost,” says Vouillamoz. In general, these grapes haven’t been known to express the vinous depth and nuance of Vitis vinifera. And some hybrid varieties display abundant floral and musky aromatics derided as “foxy.”

Yet hybrids are undergoing a remarkable shift in the court of opinion of wine sippers and grapes growers. Deirdre Heekin and Caleb Barber, at La Garagista farm and winery in Barnard, Vermont, have led the charge since their inaugural wines, released in 2010. The winery now has 11 acres of vines and makes 13 wines, all of which are hybrids.

Photo courtesy of Deirdre Heekin.

While La Garagista’s wines now enjoy a significant niche in natural wine’s mainstream, they are showcased in circles still dominated by Vitis vinifera—no matter how alternative the crowd. “We are not out of the woods yet in terms of broad acceptance,” says Heekin, who, as an example of the institutional prejudices faced by producers of non-vinifera wines, cites the Wine and Spirits Education Trust, which “still teaches that hybrids by nature make lesser wines.”

But tastes evolve, notes Jason Wilson, a wine writer and the author of Godforsaken Grapes: A Slightly Tipsy Journey through the World of Strange, Obscure, and Underappreciated Wine. He sees hybrids, especially the wines of La Garagista, as a sign of the times. “This is a moment where people are curious about strange and experimental things,” he says. “After consumers have tried [them], they are now willing to order a hybrid.”

In freeing Vermont viticulture, Heekin and Barber are pioneering a new age in American winemaking. And Heekin’s message is loud and clear: “It is time to end the denigration of hybrids.”

Vermont’s First Wave

La Garagista’s wines are now distributed in New York State and Vermont by Artisanal Cellars, one of whose partners, Iacopo Di Teodoro, had been following the work at La Garagista since the beginning. Like many, Di Teodoro started as a skeptic. “Of course I was the European judgy nonbeliever,” he says. But that changed. “The crescendo of their experience,” he says, “watching them get better every single year [at] highlighting terroir from Vermont is something amazing.”

Heekin’s viticultural choices have and continue to be governed by farming. “For me,” she says, “the farming and then clean, careful, and transparent work in the cellar are the most important attributes of any wine.” And the ability of certain hybrids to withstand Vermont’s harsh alpine winters has given her latitude to farm biodynamically—a feat she might not have pulled off if she’d used the more fragile Vitis vinifera.

The two largest plantings at La Garagista are four acres of La Crescent, a white, and three acres of Marquette, a red. “None of us have been making wine long enough here to pinpoint one grape or another as more noble,” Heekin says. But that’s no deterrent. “The wines don’t have to conform to fitting into a box,” she notes, adding, “There is an incredible amount of freedom, creativity, and joy in this.”

While La Garagista’s wines were the hybrids heard round the world, wineries elsewhere in the state were already on the hunt. Ethan Joseph is the winemaker at Shelburne Vineyard and the proprietor of his own one-year-old label, Iapetus. Located on the eastern bank of Lake Champlain in Shelburne, Vermont, the winery was founded in 1998 by Ken Albert, a retired IBM executive. Joseph began working at the vineyard part time in 2004 while attending college. Four years later, he was the vineyard manager and winemaker.

Ethan Joseph. Photo courtesy of Shelburne Vineyard.

“Ken planted cold-climate vinifera varieties like Riesling and Zweigelt, along with some old French-American hybrids, like Cayuga white, Traminette, and Vidal Blanc,” says Joseph. While the hybrids did well, none of the vinifera were able to withstand Vermont’s harsh winters, during which temperatures can reach -20°F. Seeking a broader variety of sturdier vines, Shelburne Vineyard began working with the University of Minnesota’s Horticultural Research Center in St. Paul, which was releasing new cold-hardy hybrids. John Thull, the university’s vineyard manager, cites the program’s unique ability to “develop new, high-quality grape varieties that not only have enticing flavors and aromas but at the same time are very cold tolerant and disease resistant.”

The University of Minnesota first released the red varieties Frontenac Noir and St. Croix, but it really made waves with the release in 2006 of the red variety Marquette. In addition to breeding for hardiness, the university also pushed for flavor and winemaking potential. Marquette is a complex hybrid of two grapes, MN 1094 and Ravat 262, both of which have been through multiple crosses. In this case, Ravat 262’s heritage is imbued with Pinot Noir. Shelburne was an early adopter of the better hybrids and began major replanting from 2006 to 2007.  “That,” says Joseph, “was the new foundation of our Vermont wine industry.”

At Iapetus, all farming decisions, from tractor passes to sprays, are critically analyzed and continue to evolve. Joseph’s ferments start with a wild yeast starter, and the wines are not fined or filtered. His 2016 vintage was released after each of the two lines—pét-nats and still wines—spent a year in bottle. His latest experiments include a still, skin-macerated La Crescent, called Tectonic, and Figure 1, a pét-nat made from the white L’Acadie Blanc.

Inspiring New Winemakers

Pioneers like Heekin and Joseph have helped pave the way for the next generation of Vermont winemakers. Krista Scruggs, at Zafa Wines, which released its first vintage in 2017, was largely influenced by Heekin. In fact, she sourced her fruit from La Garagista’s vineyards. Scruggs’s career in wine has included stints at Constellation Brands as a cellar master and winemaker and in the lab. In 2015 she lived and worked alongside a tiny vigneron in Cahor, France, for a year. Later, a meeting with Heekin at San Francisco’s Brumaire, a natural-wine event, ignited an instant mentorship. “What attracted me to Deirdre,” says Scruggs, “was more about her and her ethos than necessarily her work with hybrids.” By the end of the year, Scruggs was working in the fields alongside her mentor.

An opportunity arose in 2018, much sooner than Scruggs anticipated, to take full charge of vines as a vineyard manager. The offer was from Ellison Estate Vineyard on Grand Isle in Lake Champlain. Because land stewardship was always Scruggs’s ultimate goal, it was a chance she couldn’t pass up. Heekin gave her blessing and endorsement, and Scruggs is working apace to rehabilitate the vineyard and raise it to the standards she absorbed at La Garagista. She’ll grow her own grapes for Zafa and supply fruit for La Garagista, among other winemakers.

Photo courtesy of Deidre Heeken.

“To honor the region means to honor the acidity,” says Scruggs, which is why Zafa will focus on sparkling wines. She says La Crescent is the grape to watch because of its high acid and floral—but not foxy—aromatics. Carving her own path, Scruggs keeps an edge, writing her own rules and leaving her mark. Zafa wines share her verve, with names like Jungle Fever (made from La Crescent), Against All Odds (wild apples, Brianna, and Frontenac Gris), and No Love Lost (wild apples and Frontenac Noir), the last two being apple co-ferments.

Winemakers in New York State began to see anew after La Garagista came onto the scene. Master Sommelier Pascaline Lepeltier was taken by Heekin’s wines early on. She challenged herself, while working as the beverage director at Rouge Tomate in New York City, to seek beverages made in the Northeastern United States. “The idea was to support what was growing in an easier way and was organic or as close as possible,” says Lepeltier, who is now managing partner at Racines in New York City. That challenge made her take an open-minded look at grapes and vines beyond Vitis vinifera and led to her discovery of La Garagista.  

After becoming persuaded by the possibilities of hybrid grapes, Lepeltier partnered with Nathan Kendall, a winemaker in New York’s Finger Lakes region. Together they created the Chëpìka sparkling wine project; the name means “roots” in the Native American Lenape language. “Instead of trying to reinvent the wheel,” says Kendall, “we went back to the roots of the region.”  

The pair discovered that the Finger Lakes had a history of producing sparkling wine from hybrid grapes in the mid-1800s. They chose to use Catawba and Delaware varieties, both of which were major components of the area’s traditional sparkling wines and are thought to be intentional or natural hybrids of Vitis vinifera and Vitis labrusca, though their genetic origin is not entirely clear, according to Wine Grapes. Delaware and Catawba are old hybrids—so old they commonly get referred to as native,” says Kendall. “There are multiple stories on the origin of both varieties but no solid evidence as to what’s truly accurate.” In 2017, Chëpìka bottled each variety separately and released two inaugural pét-nat cuvées.

The project is a rethinking of which grapes belong in the Northeast. “Hybrids that are better suited to our cold climates are more disease resistant, which means you can treat the vineyards in a more sustainable and organic way,” Kendall says. Also, because of the grapes’ high acid and untarnished fruit, Kendall and Lepeltier make the wines without adding sulfur.

Sowing the Seeds for Future Growth

Because the attention paid to hybrid varieties has yet to reach a critical mass, it’s difficult to characterize winemaking with these grapes as a bona fide movement. And yet it’s the most essential work happening today on the path toward defining truly American wines. For naysayers who question hybrids’ mixed parentage, Wilson offers a different view: “Isn’t the beauty of America that everyone is of mixed parentage to begin with?” Ultimately, he says, “hybrids are going to be known as American grapes.”

For now, the consensus is that vinifera grapes aren’t going anywhere. But time will have the last say, whether through the introduction of new breeds, shifts in consumers’ palates, or climatic changes that force growers to reevaluate their plantings. None of this will happen overnight, and Wilson points out that adaptation in viticulture is glacially slow. “We need to think of wine,” he says, “not in 10-year trends but in 100-year spans.”

Though the use of hybrids is somewhat radical and isolated for now, the beauty of this work lies in what it could portend for the future. That’s why Heekin continues to brave the gauntlet of biases. She sees something bigger than the current reality and concludes, “I love the subversive nature of this kind of dialogue, and I feel it’s the best way to encourage a new way of thinking.”

Peter Weltman is a sommelier and entrepreneur based in San Francisco who explores native grapes from ancient sources. He writes for global food publications, gives speeches on wine activism, and creates immersive experiences about his movement, Borderless Wine. Find out where he’s reporting from next on Instagram.

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