Wine: American and Hybrid Wines Grow Up

Going Native: Hybrid grapes and those native to America have long been maligned, but the newer versions can’t be dismissed

American-native red-wine grapes and French-American hybrids have never been an easy sell to our European-centric palates. But refinements in the making of wines from those grapes and increasingly adventurous and inquisitive consumers — especially younger wine drinkers — are closing that gap.

If you’ve been around the Michigan wine industry long enough, you may remember those French–American cold-hardy hybrid wine grapes, such as Baco Noir, Chancellor, and Chambourcin, that dominated red-wine making here for many years.

About 20 years ago, we also began producing more red vinifera, the European grapes, such as cabernet franc, merlot, and pinot noir. Sales of reds increased, but the old hybrids and native-to-America grapes took a back seat, although they have remained around.

It was always easy to spot hybrids and American native grapes, such as Niagara and Norton, simply by their powerful aromatics. You didn’t really even need to taste them to know what was in the glass.

The problem for these wines was that they were always considered to be out of character and flavor with the expectations mainstream wine drinkers had of European grapes. People didn’t like them or give them much of a chance. Therefore, they never sold very well under their grape names. Instead, they went into blends and inexpensive sparkling wines, or dessert wines.

Now, through years of trial and error, cross-breeding, and improved viticulture and wine-making techniques, we’re beginning to see their offspring emerging as far more sophisticated, polished wines made from “newer” American grapes that are now compatible with European style and taste patterns, but without compromising the fact that these are different grapes.

Call them grown-up Americans, if you wish.

Many, if not most, still won’t be labeled by grape variety prominently, but chances are that somewhere on the back labels you’ll find references to the grapes these wines contain. And you may well be surprised by how good they are today.

One of the delightful new whites coming into the market is of a grape called Brianna, which has apricot, peach, pineapple, and melon characteristics and good acidity and freshness.

Vignoles is a white grape that has been around Michigan for decades, and since its parentage is partly chardonnay, it’s a comfortable and familiar white, although brisker, more acid, and leaner.

There’s also a whole new subset of North American reds, some new and some that have been around for a long time, but the new versions are more refined.

Among those trying this out is the Leelanau Peninsula’s Adam Satchwell, the great winemaker at Shady Lane, known for his vibrant whites and sparkling wines and fine, lighter pinot noirs.

Satchwell has a new wine that could easily pass for a slightly robust pinot noir. It’s a blaufränkisch, a German cousin, essentially. It has all the balance, texture, and a lot of the same fruit character.

I’m also very excited by a grape called Marquette, developed in recent years by the University of Minnesota. I’ve tasted trial versions, and now early commercial production versions in Iowa, of all places. It’s a superb grape, one that’s also being grown in Michigan. The first vintages should be out next year, so watch for Marquette, also.

These are exciting wines, and will be well worth trying as they begin to appear on store shelves.