The US wine industry is at the mercy of climate change. Hybrid grapes can help.

This was the story Originally published on Civil Eats.


In his nearly 50 years in the wine industry, J. Stephen Cascals has watched the weather in New York’s Hudson Valley become wetter, hotter, and wetter—a perfect environment for fungal diseases and pests to thrive. Faced with everything from black mold and downy mildew to stink bugs and spotted lantern flies — invasive insects that feed on plant sap — wine growers across the region have been frequently using pesticides and fungicides, including copper substitutes for their Organic vineyard cultivation.

“I am he who sprinkles these things, [so] “I prefer not to use things that are highly toxic,” Cascles says. “Or, if you are, I’d rather use it three times a year instead of 12.”

However, even copper poses potential health risks, and researchers have found that it can build up in vineyards over time, negatively impacting soil health. For these reasons, Casscles and other winemakers hope to reduce spraying overall by growing grape varieties more suitable for the increasingly unstable climate.

Along with Milea Estate Vineyards, Casscles recently launched the Heritage Grape, a line of wine intended to preserve and promote hybrid grapes, a cross between Native American grapes and European varieties that most wine drinkers are familiar with. Once dismissed as “sly”, “musky” or “one-dimensional,” these grape hybrids are being re-evaluated as the climate crisis will reshape vineyards around the world.

“Everyone cares about the yield and the ongoing health of their vineyards,” explains wine distributor and former wine cellar manager Peter Szilagyi. “People who tend to these native and hybrid grapes do so out of a concern for the soil and the workers—mostly because they themselves are closer to the business.”

Grape species such as labrusca, aestivalis, rupestris, and riparia have developed in North America with many regional pests and fungi. Historical hybrid grapes are spontaneous crossbreeding between the Vinifera grapes used in European winemaking and Native American grapes, or have been intentionally bred in the United States and Europe in response to pressures such as the Phyloxera epidemic to help the European wine industry recover or to create more productivity and better-tasting grapes.

With grape-growing regions expected to shrink by up to 56 percent worldwide, costs are rising, and the world’s wine map set to change drastically, the Heritage Grape Project sees hybrids helping local vineyards grow grapes in Both areas. in an environmentally and economically sound manner. And in our time, efforts to bring hybrid grapes to fields and markets are gaining new urgency – while facing a host of challenges.

brittle vines

For US winemakers, growing the highly valued Vitis vinifera in Europe has been an enduring struggle. Vinifera grapes often fail across the Atlantic Ocean due to varying climates, pests, and fungal diseases.

When Nicholas Longworth, heralded by many as the “father of American wine,” began growing grapes in Ohio in the early 1800s, he worked for decades growing Vitis vinifera, to no avail. In response, Longworth and other growers have turned to hybrids such as catawba, a cross between grapes and the original Labrusca grape. Catawba wine quickly grew in popularity: Henry Longfellow wrote a poem about grapes, arguing that there is no wine as “delicious, delicious, and dreamy” as that produced with Catawba.

But catawba and other hybrids were not favored when a ban organization effectively closed most vineyards in the eastern and midwestern United States and the industry eventually moved to California, where new, more industrial practices took root.

In recent decades, the wine industry has returned to other pockets of the country, but as temperatures rise and the weather becomes increasingly unstable, calls are growing for a new approach.

Vitis vinifera grows in Wuerzburg, Germany.
TF Images / Getty Images

Searching for ignored grapes

Casscles began working in the wine industry when he was 14, but has spent his full-time career as an attorney working in upstate New York. Now, he says, the search for the perfect hybrid grape reminds him of the time he spent organizing the New York horse racing industry. “It’s kind of like raising racehorses,” he explains. “She looks at her parents and grandparents to see what the offspring might be capable of.”

In his collection of 200 old and new books on American grape varieties, Casscles searches for promising hybrids. “I try to go back in history in search of varieties that can be sustainably grown today,” he explains. Based on this information, Casscles deduces whether the grapes will be resistant to fungal diseases, how easy they will be to grow them in different types of soil, if they will “roll with the punches” in droughts or floods, and of course, if he thinks they will produce delicious wine. He then ordered the free grape cuttings from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Plant Genetic Resources Unit in Geneva, New York, which aims to conserve crop biodiversity and improve reproduction.

Expanding grape biodiversity is critical for more than just aesthetic reasons, says Anna Katherine Mansfield, professor of fermentation sciences at Cornell University. “The genetic variation of all Vitis vinifera species is really small. They are all so closely related that if one of them had a disease, they would all have it.”

Since the 1980s, university scientists at Cornell and elsewhere have used molecular tools such as genome sequencing to direct crosses between vinifera and other species, including riparia and amurensis. For example, the University of Minnesota relies on Vitis riparia, often referred to as “Native Minnesota grapes” to produce hybrid wine grapes that can thrive in the region’s colder climate. Along with the Minnesota Grape Growers Association, the university hosts an International Cold Climate Wine Competition featuring these hybrids.

Casscles, however, prefer ‘heritage’ hybrids, bred intentionally as a result of disease in the 19th century or spontaneously after European settlement, over these newer cultivars. “Not only [“heritage”] The grapes are sustainably grown, but have historical significance. Through the Heritage Grape Project, Casscles now produces about 900 gallons per year of this 107-varietal hybrid wine grown on his 12-acre farm.

However, like many older varieties, it is not bred for productivity or speed of production. In Casscles’ experiment, hybrid vines, such as vinifera grapes, often don’t reach full production until their fifth year, but he finds the gamble is worth it. “We already know that they are very well adapted to the environment and are compatible with the region,” adds Mansfield. Finally, Casscles’ endeavor will reach 375 crates of wine sold this year at Milea Estate Vineyards, though he has begun planting more certain hybrids in order to increase production in the future.

This amount will not affect total wine consumption in the United States – wine spectator 2019 consumption is associated with 328.9 million cases. But for Casscles, this is a crucial first step to highlight the diversity of grapes and popularize these hybrids among consumers and other winemakers. In addition to producing his own wine, Casscles also donates many native hybrids to botanical gardens and arboretums on the East Coast, some of which grow their own small vineyards for educational purposes and to raise the profile of hybrid grapes.

Other grape growers and winemakers also rely on the deep history of hybrid grapes to address current problems. Justine Belle Lambright is Director of Outside Business at Kalchē Wine Cooperative, a Vermont-based working cooperative that produces wine from locally grown hybrid grapes.

For Lampright, hybrid grapes can contribute to the redefinition and extraction of wine. “Although the majority of vineyard workers are black and brown bodies, they make up only 1 percent of the property level,” notes Lampright. As they see, the hybrid grape, which requires fewer chemical inputs, has the potential to improve working conditions for these colorful workers.

But hybrids are not a silver bullet. Art and food historian Shanna Klein described in detail how in the nineteenth century, “the development of viticulture promised to raise the cultural importance of America as well as the colonization of landscapes that were divinely forbidden to white Americans.” This development of viticulture relied heavily on hybrids, many of which came through spontaneous hybridization after settlers brought the Vinifera grapes to the Americas. Thus, the hybrid grape is heavily implicated in the violence of settler colonialism and indigenous displacement.

“When people talk about heritage, who are they actually talking about?” asks Lampright, arguing that winemakers need to contend with the industry’s violent past – and present. As the Kalchē website declares, “It is up to us to redefine and reclaim the world of the next wine.”

Hybrid future?

While hybrids are not a panacea, Lampright sees hybrid grapes as an important part of the next era of wine production because of the potential to improve “exploitation of grapes.”[ation] of workers, consumers and the environment” when appropriate considerations are given.

However, hybrid grapes may still face an uphill battle for widespread acceptance; It’s new to most consumers, and restaurants can be hesitant to stock the wine made with it. “I have a lot of people in old-school wine styles who think there are right and wrong ways to consume this drink,” says Marcy Gesteiger-Cox, wine director for Michelin-starred Reverie in Washington, D.C. There are still a lot of stigmas around hybrid grapes.”

Casscles believes that consumer taste can change with more education. There is not much name recognition for these French-American hybrids and there is almost no name for the Heritage cultivars developed in the Hudson Valley and New England. He hopes that the Heritage Grape Project and others will lead to greater recognition of these varieties. Others, such as Szilagyi, suggest hybrid wines need to chart their own course. “I’ve found some of my favorite wines from hybrid grapes,” he says. Making European-style wines from hybrid grapes,” recommend winemakers, “cud them up and sit comfortably with [their] adjectives.”

The fact that grapes without grapes are less than a “known amount” means that the kinds of large capital investments needed to get vineyards up and running can be hard to come by. It takes more time and money to set up one of these atypical vineyards.

Jerry Eastrold of TerraVox Vineyards in Missouri got his start in winemaking after coming across a copy of the 1909 book foundations of american grape culture, Which ranks the huge variety of American grapes. With inspiration, Easterhold set out to put these items back on the map. He tracks down the Texas community college that once housed the Monson Nursery and begins growing native grapes.

Esterold notes that choosing the right grape variety in a changing climate can be more difficult in the case of cultivated or untested varieties. “We don’t explore a single vine tree; we explore a variety of them. So, the efficiency of all the work in observing, analyzing and doing all the testing doubles,” says Easterhold, who started TerraVox with an equal race and 60 different species. “It’s a lot of work that doesn’t get consumed on huge amounts of wine,” he says.

Despite the challenges inherent in any transformation of this magnitude, a number of winemakers and others in the industry see hybrid grapes and native grapes as key to the future of wine.

“Today’s winemaking is largely an agro-industrial complex,” explains Marie-Louise Friedland, a Boston sommelier and graduate culinary researcher. “But where we’ll see the continued success of American wine is embracing hybrid grapes in a more realistic way.”

• Will climate change help hybrid grapes take root in the US wine industry? [Civil Eats]

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