IT IS A fact of wine buying, that few consumers venture into the French-American hyI brid marketplace. A quick survey of the inventory of any wine shop will disclose few, if any, hybrid varieties available for sale. Yet hybrid grapes have proven moderately successful in parts of the United States and Europe, and there is no doubt that some of the finest hybrid wines are made in the mid-Atlantic area and in the Finger Lake district of New York state.
Hybrids are the result of crossing or hybridizing a European vinifera variety with the native North American variety, lambrusca. Most of the crossing was accomplished in the late 19th century by viticulturists in France who were trying to produce vines that were resistant to the louse called phylloxera. It was this louse that was responsible for the devastation of the vinifera vineyards of Europe during the last 30 years of the 19th century.
Hybrids are named after the viticulturists who created them: Baco, Seibel, Ravat, Seyve-Villard.
Hybrids are popular in the East Coast, in Canada, and in the Great Lakes region because they are especially hardy and have demonstrated much better ability than the vinifera grapes to survive the cold winters of these regions. In addition, most hybrids do not need the long growing season which many vinifera grapes require.
Wine enthusiasts who think hybrids can't produce good wine would be surprised by the quality of many of the hybrid wines produced by local wineries such as Montbray, Meredyth and Byrd, particularly their white hybrids.
The hybrids are listed by their American marketplace name rather than their technical French hybrid number and name. For example, a well-known red hybrid, mare'chal foch is listed under its marketplace name, foch, rather than kuhlmann 188-2, which is its official French technical name.
One of the most successful white hybrids, this medium-bodied dry table wine was popularized locally by Dr. Hamilton Mowbray, who has produced this wine at his winery in Carroll County for almost two decades. Its style is sometimes reminiscent of a dry Loire Valley white wine, although with a couple years of aging, it can resemble a French chablis or macon. It is consistently well made by the local vineyards and is usually identified by the name seyval blanc. It is best drunk young when it is fresh and crisp, although 5- to 6-year-old bottles of Montbray Seyval have possessed considerable fruit and character.
Thrift selection: Byrd nonvintage ($4.49)
Splurge selection: 1980 Montbray ($5.99)
This hybrid is less publicized than seyval, but certainly no less attractive. It is usually vinified quite dry, and is generally more austere than seyval, but possesses crisp acidity and occasionally a faint earthy character not unlike a white graves from France. Villard blanc is best consumed when it is young.
Selection: 1979 or 1980 Meredyth ($5.99)
Cayuga produces an attractively perfumed wine which seems to be vinified in an off-dry style by most wineries. At its best, it is somewhat reminiscent of a slightly sweet chenin blanc, although it can be cloyingly sweet and bland. It is primarily grown in the Finger Lakes section of New York state. Like most white hybrids, it is best consumed within two to three years of the vintage period.
Selection: 1980 Glenora ($4.99)
Aurora produces a light-bodied, sound white wine which some wine authorities feel resembles a lighter style Alsatian slyvaner. It is best drunk within one to three years of the vintage.
Other white hybrids that are frequently encountered by the consumer include verdelet, delaware and ravat blanc.
PRINCIPAL RED HYBRIDS
Originally from Alsace, France, foch is grown extensively in the eastern United States. It is an early ripening grape which lends itself to several styles of wine. I refer foch when it is made to be drunk young and fruity, much in the style of a beaujolais. When winemakers try to make a big, full-bodied wine, the results are usually clumsy and of little interest. Foch should always be drunk within four years of the vintage. While Foch seems to have an intense deep ruby color and an attractive berry-like, grapy bouquet, it frequently suffers from high acidity, and seems to lack a middle range on one's palate. The best foch produced locally include those of Meredyth and Montbray cellars at prices in the $5 to $6 range.
Baco Noir usually produces a blackish colored wine which can have an interesting fruity aroma. Like most red hybrids, it has a fair amount of acidity and sometimes seems to lack depth and length, but has a certain robustness and is one of the more interesting red hybrid varieties. It seems to have all the components to age for five to six years, but is usually drunk quite young.
This hybrid produces a sound wine with good fruit, excellent color and medium to full body. It is not terribly well known, but seems to have potential, particularly if it is blended. One of the best de chaunacs available locally is made by Meredyth vineyards in Middleburg, Virginia, at a price of $4.99 a bottle.
There are numerous other red hybrids which are often represented in various percentages of the red table wine blends sold by Eastern wineries. Hybrids such as chambourcin, chancellor and ravat rarely can stand on their own merit, but blends of these grapes as well as blends of the more commonly encountered de chaunac, foch and baco noir can often be surprisingly good.
There is no better way to learn about the quality of the local wines than to taste them and cross-examine their makers. On March 25, 1982, Woodley Liquors and Les Amis du Vin will be sponsoring the first annual tasting of the 1981 vintage. Several wines from each of the local wineries and their winemakers will be present. For more information call Woodley Liquors, 966-4400, or Les Amis du Vin, 588-0980.