A History of Okanagan's Hybrid Grapes

Today, the bulk of grape varieties that crop up in Okanagan Valley’s vineyards are a wide representation of familiar international varieties like Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and more. But as a discerning fan of the region’s wines, you’ll probably have seen other names like Vidal Blanc or Marechal Foch on wine labels. These varieties are known as hybrids and for many decades, they dominated Okanagan’s vineyards. But what are hybrids and why are they important to Okanagan Valley’s winemaking legacy? Join us as we take a look.

Most grapes used in wine production come from the species vitis vinifera. Hybrid grapes are born by crossing v. vinifera and other vitis species like v. labrusca, v. aestivalis, v. rupestris, and others. If vinifera vines are responsible for the fine wines we know and love, why bother crossing vinifera grapes with other species in the first place? After all, both winemakers and the wine drinking public agree that by and large, non-vinifera vines tend to make inferior wine.

The practice of developing hybrid grape varieties rose to prominence during the mid-19th-century phylloxera epidemic. With wine’s continued existence at risk, there was a mad dash to find a solution to the problem. Scientists and researchers like Charles Valentine Riley realized that indigenous American grapes like Concord (v. labrusca) have a natural resistance to phylloxera. This shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise when you learn that phylloxera also comes from the North American continent. Riley’s work eventually led to grafting vinifera shoots onto American rootstocks which saved the wine industry worldwide. But during this same period, others took to breeding vinifera with American grapevines. Their goal was to create new varieties resistant to the destructive, root eating louse which also possessed desirable vinifera aromas and flavours. Dozens of new cultivars came into being and even after a solution to the phylloxera problem was sorted out, folks continued to creating hybrids, this time with a different purpose.

Along with crossing vinifera species to yield grapes with better pest and disease resistance, hybrids were made to tolerate colder climates along the upper limits of where grapes can be grown. Consider this: most winemaking takes place between 30° and 50° latitude north and south. Given that it’s along the 49th parallel, Okanagan Valley is a marginal climate – not that this has stopped wine makes from producing spectacular wines, and hybrids have played a role in how Okanagan has developed as a wine region. These grapes were the basis of many of the Valley’s wines for several decades, up until the 1980s when winemakers took another stab at cultivating vitis vinifera vines.

Hybrids shouldn’t be confused with crossings; a crossing is a new grape variety which is the result of two parents of the same species cross-pollinating. And there are quite a few crossings here in Okanagan’s vineyards which were developed for some of the same reasons as the French-American hybrids. German crossings like Ehrenfelser, Siegerrebe, and Kerner are all cold resistant – quite handy when your vineyards are located near the 50th parallel north!

Although they may not be planted in the numbers they once were, you’ll still come across plenty of wineries (including some of Okanagan’s best) who offer wines made from hybrid grape varieties in their line up. The most common hybrids in both Okanagan and Canada at large are the so-called French-American hybrids. These grapes represent an important part of Canada’s winemaking history and although met with derision in the past, can actually make tasty wine. Like any offspring, these hybrid grapes show a mix of their parents’ features and in the hands of talented winemakers, hybrid grapes can yield delicious wine.

Hybrid Grape Wines to Try

Vidal – this grape is found across Canada’s major wine regions and is almost exclusively used for ice wine. It’s exceptionally cold resistant and gets quite ripe while still maintaining acidity – making it a perfect candidate for late harvest wine production.

Tasting notes: Deliciously fruity – pineapple, melon, tropical fruits, and flowers.

Check out dry Vidal Blanc  from Mission Hill Winery, Arrowleaf Cellars, and Inniskillin.

Baco Noir – there’s not much in the ways of Okanagan Baco Noir plantings these days; the grape was one of the targets of the vine pull scheme in the ’80s. Check out Ancient Hill Estate and Summerhill Pyramid if you’re interested in sampling 100 percent Baco Noir wine.

Tasting notes: – Loads of red fruits like red cherry and raspberry, licorice, pepper, and floral notes. It can be smoky. Medium to high acid and medium tannins.

Marechal Foch – another victim of the vine pull scheme, Marechal Foch often tastes similar to Gamay (of Beaujolais fame). (useful if autumn turns chilly early in the season),

Tasting notes: raspberries, strawberries, blackberry, black cherry, spice, herbs, and cocoa. Medium to high acid with low tannins.

Try Lang Vineyards, Summerhill Pyramid Winery, and St. Hubertus & Oak Bay Estate Winery.