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Hybrid grapes - Chambourcin

Later this month, I'll be judging the annual home wine competition at the Kentucky State Fair, a chore that some wine enthusiasts might consider tough duty but that's actually a lot of fun. I have found amateur wine makers to be among the most enthusiastic of wine lovers, and having had their arms in grape juice up to their elbows gives them an up-close-and-personal understanding of the beverage that goes beyond what you can get out of a glass.

One thing is certain: When you judge wine in the Eastern U.S. or Canada, whether it's made at home or by local commercial wineries, you'll taste a lot of fruit less well-known than Chardonnay or Merlot. Because the traditional wine grapes of Europe ("vitis vinifera," botanically) are difficult to grow in non-Mediterranean climates, only a few purists try them. Wines in this region are often made from:

  • Native American grapes like Concord or Muscadines, which have a wild and strong "grape jelly" flavor

  • Fruits other than grapes, usually but not always sweet, ranging from blackberries, raspberries and elderberries to such exotica as the tomato wine I once judged at the Maryland Wine Festival or the light, odd rose-petal wine entered a few years ago at the Kentucky fair.

  • Wines made from concentrated grape juice put up in cans for hobby use, a category that I generally find the least interesting.

  • And, last but far from least, wines made from "French hybrid" grapes like the topic of today's report, Chambourcin.

This class of grapes, many of them modern crossings and virtually all developed since the 19th Century, developed in the quest for new grape varieties that combine the hardiness of New World vines with the flavor quality of European grapes. Bearing such less-familiar names as Chancellor, Baco Noir, Marechal Foch, Seyval, Vidal, Vignoles and many more, their popularity is on the decline in France, where law and custom strongly favor the traditional varieties. But they remain popular in the Eastern U.S. and Canada, where their hardiness and yield make them a good economic choice for hobbyists and small-farm winery owners, and where continued efforts have dramatically increased wine quality in recent years.

Some hybrid flavors, especially among the reds, are a little difficult for those accustomed to European wine styles to like. But one of the best, in my opinion, is Chambourcin ("Sham-boor-san"), a variety created as recently as 1963. Bred in France, it was widely grown in the Loire Valley for a while and still has some plantings there, but since it can't legally be used in quality wines, it is dying out. In the Eastern U.S., however, it makes a tasty, dark and fresh red wine. It has also been planted in parts of Australia; d'Arenberg, for instance, makes a tasty McLaren Vale Chambourcin called "The Peppermint Paddock."

If you live in a region where French hybrids are grown, you should try a few. Particularly if you can get your hands on a Chambourcin.

Express Notes:

This is Wine Advisor Express, daily edition of The 30 Second Wine Advisor, distributed Tuesdays through Fridays. To subscribe, change your E-mail address, switch from daily to the weekly (Mondays only) distribution, or for any other administrative matters, E-mail Please be sure to include the exact E-mail address that you used when you subscribed, so we can find your record.

Thursday, Aug. 2, 2001
Copyright 2001 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.

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