I can already hear some of you coughing and gagging at the idea of a wine made from hybrid grapes in an Eastern state. But bear with me, if you will, as I try to make a case for this little-known and much-maligned niche in the world of wine.
Last month, you'll recall, in an article titled "Support your local winery," I encouraged you to try something from a wine producer in your part of the world ... even if you don't live in a region that's famous for fine wine.
If you're in the Eastern U.S. or Canada, there's a fairly good chance that your wine won't be made from Sauvignon Blanc or Shiraz but from grapes with stranger names, monikers like Seyval Blanc or Chancellor or Vignoles or Marechal Foch. Although most of these wines bear French-sounding names, they're actually French-American hybrids: grape varieties bred in relatively modern times by crossing traditional European grapes with American wild grapes.
When our immigrant ancestors came to the Colonies, they brought with them a thirst for good wine, but soon learned that the species of grape that grows naturally in the New World (vitis labrusca, to botanists), while fine for making jam or grape juice, imparts a strong flavor that many people find unpleasant in wine. But European wine-grape varieties (vitis vinifera) didn't thrive in the relatively harsh eastern climate.
So grape scientists eventually came up with a compromise - hybrid grapes that seek to blend American hardiness with European style on vines that would grow in east of the Mississippi and north to Ontario. These "French-hybrid" grapes have fostered the development of small wineries in many Eastern states and Canada.
For years, though, the sad reality was that hybrids, by and large, don't make wines that compare favorably with the European originals. Most white hybrid varieties produced thin and neutral wines. The reds tended toward odd and unexpected flavors, some infused with the grape-jelly native-grape aroma that tasters call "foxy," others with vegetative, grainlike or toasty nuances that might be interesting in their own right but that were hard for people accustomed to European wines to enjoy.
In modern times, though, as Eastern wine makers gained experience and agricultural colleges in Ohio, Indiana, Arkansas and other Eastern states developed new approaches in the vineyard and the winery, times are changing, at least a little. If you haven't tried these wines in recent years, a little exploration might be in order.
One producer near my home - Huber Orchard & Winery in Starlight, Indiana, just across the Ohio River from Louisville - is doing particularly well with hybrid blends. Wine maker Ted Huber puts together combinations of hybrid varieties, arguing that blends of grapes show balanced flavors more difficult to accomplish with single varieties. These wines are sold under proprietary names like Indiana Heritage and Generations, and they're quite good. (But then, so are Huber's old-fashioned wines made from native grapes and from berries and other locally grown fruits.)
Last night at an excellent Southern Indiana restaurant (RockWall in Floyds Knobs), we enjoyed a bottle of Huber's 2000 "Heritage" blend with dinner. If you're ever in or around Southern Indiana, I recommend giving Huber's wines a try. My tasting notes are below - and to avoid frustrating those of you who aren't close enough to the Hoosier State to try a taste, I'll follow up with notes on a more widely available wine.
Huber Winery 2000 Indiana Heritage ($17.95)
This is a dark, plum-colored wine, with attractive red-fruit aromas touched with just a hint of that pleasant "barnyard" scent that I think of as evoking country roads on a summer night. Full-bodied and ripe, plum and tart cherry flavors come together with fresh-fruit acidity in a pleasant and well-balanced wine that could pass for a Rhone or Rhone-style red in a blind tasting. Wine maker Ted Huber's French-hybrid wines taste remarkably like European styles, succeeding by blending several hybrid varieties to take advantage of complementary flavors, then aging them in barrels to add discreet oaky spice that doesn't overwhelm the fruit. (July 22, 2003)
FOOD MATCH: Extremely good with a flavorful pork chop with a lightly spicy Creole treatment, if perhaps just a bit robust for a delicate Cornish hen. It would be fine with any red meat.
VALUE: Compared with the quality Rhone-style reds it somewhat resembles, the $17.95 winery price is slightly pushy but not unreasonable. I paid $25 at a local restaurant, a relatively low markup that made it quite competitive with similar reds on the list.
WHEN TO DRINK: Ready now, but made in an ageworthy style, and the winery says some of its 10-year-old vintages are holding up well.
WEB LINK: Huber sells its wines at the winery and by mail-order only in Indiana. For information, visit
Montes 2001 Colchagua Valley Reserve Malbec ($9.99)
Garnet in color with bright reddish-purple glints. The aroma is "grapey," plums and spice with dark chocolate nuances. Flavors follow the nose, plummy and bright, plenty of juicy fruit with snappy acidity to balance. Rather fruity and simple at first, but deep chocolate notes and smooth tannins emerge with time in the glass as it evolves into a more complex and interesting wine with some aging potential. Malbec is usually thought of as Argentina's signature grape, but Montes has brought it over the Andes to Chile with great success. U.S. importer: T.G.I.C. Imports Inc., Woodland Hills, Calif. (July 16, 2003)
FOOD MATCH: Fine with any red meat. I liked it with a spicy jambalaya, but it should be noted that its strength and acidity make it a little iffy with fiery fare.
VALUE: Excellent value.
WHEN TO DRINK: Ready to drink, but sturdy enough to hold up and even evolve a bit over a few years.
WEB LINK: The importer's fact sheet on this wine is online at
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Wednesday, July 23, 2003