Currently there are more than 10,000 wine grape varieties, and about 1,500 of them are used to make fermented grape juice somewhere in the world. Given those numbers, you’d think there was no incentive to invent any more. Yet the wine world is filled with both hybrid varieties and crosses, even if those grapes live on the fringes of society.
Casual consumers can easily confuse a hybrid with a cross, but they are different. A hybrid is the result of combining two distinct grape species. Most common wine varieties (such as Chardonnay, Cabernet or Pinot Noir) belong to the Vitis vinifera species. When you cross a vinifera grape with a member of Vitis labrusca or Vitis riparia, you get a hybrid; famous examples include Marechal Foch, Vidal or Vignoles. A cross, on the other hand, combines grape varieties from the same species, such as the South African Pinotage (a cross between Cinsault and Pinot Noir).
Since there are already 10,000 to choose from, why bother? Certain grape varieties may be susceptible to localized vine diseases, or sensitive to heat or cold; combining them with another species allows them to be grown in places where they would otherwise perish. Florida is a perfect example. We can’t grow vinifera grapes here due to Pierce’s Disease, so scientists have come up with varieties better suited to the climate. Perhaps the best known is Blanc du Bois, invented at the University of Florida’s Leesburg Research Station in 1968.
Is it ethical, and is it safe? If you’re worried about consuming GMO food, you can relax. Using hybrids or crosses is no worse than adopting a puggle or a labradoodle. In many parts of the world, the choice is between making wine from those grapes or not making wine at all.
One of the more interesting crosses is Kerner, an aromatic white grape developed in 1929 by combining Riesling and Trollinger. It was bred in Germany and used to be one of that country’s most popular varieties, primarily because it was disease-resistant and easy to grow. California’s only planting of Kerner is located along the Mokelumne River in Lodi and is grown and vinified at Sidebar Cellars by David Ramey.
For those not familiar with him, Ramey is one of the seminal figures in Sonoma County winemaking. He made his bones at Matanzas Creek and Chalk Hill before founding Ramey Wine Cellars in 1996. Sidebar is his second label, a project where he can pursue wines that are unusual, experimental or just plain fun.
The 2018 Sidebar Cellars Kerner ($25) has a fetching nose with scents of lime blossom, minerals and citrus. The wine is vibrant and spicy on entry, displaying sparkling acidity and a fine peppery edge. Flavors of apricots and mangoes emerge in the mid palate, but the wine is bone dry, taut and focused, with minerals lingering on the finish. Long on both texture and flavor, it would pair well with everything from oysters to robust white meat dishes.
Mark Spivak specializes in wine, spirits, food, restaurants and culinary travel. He is the author of several books on distilled spirits and the cocktail culture. Friend of the Devil, his first novel, was released in 2016; his second novel, The American Crusade, a political thriller set during the invasion of Iraq, is now available on Amazon.