Red Hybrid Wine Tasting: Which Ones Win?

Bruce Reisch and Thomas Henick-Kling. 1997. Red hybrid wine tasting: which ones win? Finger Lakes Vineyard Notes, Newsletter #6, June 20, 1997.

Finger Lakes area winemakers and growers gathered on April 28, 1997 at the Experiment Station in Geneva to taste and evaluate the commercial potential of four red hybrid grapes. At least 2 wines of each of these four varieties were tasted by 33 tasters, and ratings and comments were collected. Except for three commercial wines from Glenora Winery based on GR 7, all wines were fermented in the enology program of Dr. Thomas Henick-Kling. Grapes were harvested from Dr. Bruce Reisch's breeding program vineyards at Geneva as well as from test plots grown by Jim Hazlitt of Hector and Swedish Hill Winery. The following is a summary of the group's evaluation of these varieties.

The four selections tasted included:

GR 7 - (Buffalo x Baco noir) very vigorous, productive and winter hardy (Bud LTE50 -20 oF); occasional fruit rot problems; only fair wine ranking through the early 1980s. Wine was first made in 1961, and ranked very high in 1961, 1965 and 1966, but rarely since then. GR 7 was included due to recent industry interest.

NY70.0809.10 - (SV 18-307 x Steuben) produces vinifera type wine with nice brick red color and Gamay-like fruit aromas. Previous Station wine panel rankings: high rankings since 1988. The vine is vigorous and very productive at Geneva with good broad disease resistance. Late ripening, tendency to overcrop.

NY73.0136.17 - ((NY33277 x Chancellor) x Steuben) moderately vigorous and resistant to powdery mildew. Some trunk damage in recent years at Geneva; should perform well with occasional trunk renewal. The red wine has full body with black pepper character, intense cherry, berry fruit aromas, and complete well-balanced moderate tannins. Previous Station wine panel rankings: very high.

Frontenac - (V. riparia x Landot 4511) New variety from Univ. of Minnesota; Winter hardy (Bud LTE50 -22 oF); Foliar powdery mildew, may be superficial?, productive, pruning wt. 4.2 lbs./vine in 1996; Wine quality - first made in 1995, scored well (good color, berry fruit).

For comparison to established red hybrid cultivars, an Experiment Station sample of De Chaunac was also tasted.

Tasters were asked to evaluate the overall pleasantness of the wines presented on a 1 (low) to 10 (high) scale, and were also asked to indicate which wines in the group had commercial potential, in their opinion. A summary of the data collected from winemakers and growers is presented in the bar graph below. In general, all four wines tasted received good scores (mostly between 5 and 6 on the pleasantness scale), but the comments as well as the number of tasters indicating commercial potential helped to separate out the wines tasted.

GR 7 based wines, especially the two Glenora Red Noveaux (1995 and 1996), received some of the highest overall scores, but only 2 or 3 tasters expressed an interest in GR 7 for commercial use. Experiment Station samples of NY70.0809.10 were acceptable, but few tasters indicated a commercial interest. The most outstanding samples in terms of varietal wine potential were the two samples of NY73.0136.17. Tasters found that the wine had good tannin structure, black pepper, cherry aromas, and a pleasant finish. Six to seven tasters indicated they found commercial potential with this sample. Ratings of Frontenac averaged out well but there was much disagreement among tasters with some liking the elderberry, cherry and perfumy notes with deep color, and others finding it to be too vinous, candy-like, or "gummy".

Overall, when factoring in viticultural potential in the field, it seems that three of these selections may have potential for the New York industry. Because of certain limitations, NY70.0809.10 does not warrant further attention. The wine was not outstanding enough to interest most tasters, and the vine is late-ripening and tends to overcrop - both undesirable features in hand-pruned and machine-pruned vines. The broad level of disease resistance is not enough to outweigh the negatives.

Frontenac evoked relatively strong feelings, as one might expect for a strongly flavored wine. The unique flavor attributes (differing from vinifera and hybrid cultivars) can be attractive and also be a disadvantage. Our young vines are very winter hardy and productive, but the long term potential remains to be seen. Some winemakers were very happy with Frontenac, and others could see using it in blending. The high acidity is a potential winemaking problem. One taster noted that the variety "may have potential if the high TA is not a chronic problem after malo-lactic fermentation". Certainly, on cold, short season sites, Frontenac should be considered carefully.

GR 7 has excellent viticultural potential, as long as measures are taken to reduce its potential for excessive canopy and fruit shading which might result in bunch rot. The vines are very winter hardy (nearly as hardy in 1996/7 as Frontenac) and very productive. There is a long track record of success in the vineyard with GR 7, and a good track record in the winery as well. One advantage noted for GR 7 is the relatively low acidity especially compared to other established red hybrids. It is easier for winemakers to add acidity than to take it out. The samples of GR 7 were generally well received and the comments of the tasters seem to lean toward this selection having potential as a low cost generic/blending grape, especially if done in a nouveau style.

NY73.0136.17 has been identified over the past few years by Geneva Station tasters as a selection with excellent wine potential. Though the older vines have shown some reduction in trellis fill, it continues to survive with good crop levels, and produces large rot-free clusters which ripen in late September or early October. Grafting onto phylloxera-resistant rootstocks may be necessary. The wines were extremely well received; comments included excellent color, black pepper, good tannin, good potential, vinous/berry, clean finish, slightly weedy, good length, and "seaweed on a shale beach aroma" (this taster rated the wine "7/10", and probably enjoys exploring tidal pools).

Overall recommendation from Thomas and Bruce:

Frontenac: continue testing

NY70.0809.10 - lack of interest

GR 7 and NY73.0136.17 - continue further testing and intensive observations; plant grafted trials with the latter; consider for possible release in the near future, GR 7 for generic wines, and NY73.0136.17 for generic as well as varietal use.

Back to Bruce Reisch's Page.