The wine grape world is divided into three main categories – vitis vinifera, or European-style wine grapes like cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay; native grapes like concord and catawba; and hybrid grapes like chambourcin, and seyval blanc.
Why don’t you hear more about native and hybrid grapes? Because most wine made in the world is made with vinifera. It’s the easiest to grow in most of the important wine regions, easiest to make wine with, and mostly makes the best wine.
But this doesn’t mean that hybrids and native grapes (the ultimate list is here) aren’t legitimate wine grapes. More, after the jump:
Natives and hybrids have gotten bad publicity for years because most of the the wine made with them has been mostly sweet and mostly not very well done. (It’s also because many wine writers and winemakers are huge snobs when it comes to natives and hybrids, but that’s a rant for another day.) But the quality of native and hybrid wines has improved dramatically over the past decade, as wine makers have learned how to work with them to make quality, dry wines.
And one reason for the incredible growth of the regional wine industry in the U.S. is because winemakers have learned how to work with natives and hybrids. That’s because vinifera doesn’t like extremes – weather that is too cold, too wet, or too hot. And, in many paces in the U.S. except California and the Pacific Northwest, the weather is usually too cold, too hot or too wet. In addition, vinifera is susceptible to serious diseases and pests that natives and hybrid barely even notice.
Hybrids, in fact, were developed by crossing native and vinifera grapes over the last 100 years in an attempt to produce a new species with vinifera qualities that would withstand weather extremes and be more disease- and pest-resistant (and hybrids are justly famous in France for this). But it’s also one reason why they have been so difficult to work with. The weather and disease qualities were more developed than the wine qualities, and it took this long to figure out how to get around that problem.
So we have chambourcin from Pennsylvania and Illinois, norton from Virginia and Missouri, chardonel from Indiana, and blanc du bois from Texas. Do these wines taste like cabernet and chardonnay? Nope, But that’s OK. They’re not supposed to. Dr Pepper isn’t supposed to taste like 7-Up, is it?
The best advice I have ever gotten about wine (and it bears repeating over and over): “There’s a lot of wine out there. Drink as much as you can, because you’ll never know what you’re missing if you don’t.”