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Are hybrid grapes Canada’s unsung hero? We think so.

June 18, 2024
‘Hybrids have played a crucial role in some of Canada’s top wines’, writes Leah Spooner. Plus, 10 must-try bottles

From coast to coast, Canada has witnessed natural devastation to its vineyards. Forest fires, cold snaps, and flooding have destroyed entire vineyards and even regions, specifically within the past couple of vintages. Some wineries have been forced with the decision to replant, import, blend, or even worse, cut their losses and sell everything.

With provincial governing bodies having drastically different regulations, each province, and in some cases sub-appellation, consider different strategies as a way forward. One minor strategy that each region is faced with is the planting of more hybrid grapes that bode well against the shifting climatic landscape. While it’s certainly not a fix all, it has been a proven supportive measure. As a single variety or in a blend, hybrids have played a crucial role in some of the country’s top wines. For one entire province in particular, they’re even the staple.

Read Also: Are Okanagan GSM blends safe(ish) from climate change?

Quebec, with its’ unrelenting cold winters, has built an entire wine industry by cultivating hybrid grapes, where they make up 80 percent of the total cultivated area. Benoit Girousssens, winemaker and vineyard manager of Coteau Rougemont, claims that the most significant hybrid at his winery, Saint-Pépin, has very similar physiochemical components to that of vinifera. Additionally, he states, “With less treatments (in the vineyard), hybrids are better for the environment compared to vinifera.”

Moving further east, Nova Scotia’s signature white wine style, Tidal Bay, is typically produced with the famed L’Acadie blanc grape that makes up 32 percent of the province’s total harvest tonnage. This provincial star is not only cold resistant but early ripening, perfect for the short growing season in which it’s grown.

Hybris Grapes

Hybrid grapes are playing a large role in the fight against climate change and cooler climate winemaking.

Blomidon’s winemaker Simon Rafuse, of Nova Scotia says, “Hybrids will likely always be the backbone of the Nova Scotia wine industry, and why not? Hybrids are perfect for producing wines like Tidal Bay and traditional method sparkling. We like to make them in a crisp, citrusy, high acid style. That’s really what Nova Scotia is known for, and we embrace it!”

He goes on to admit, “There had been a big push over the last 10 years or so to plant more vinifera in the province to build on the success of the wines. After the polar vortex in February 2023 and flooding in certain areas later that year (we weren’t overly affected by the floods), a lot of wineries have had to reconsider the extent of their vinifera plantings. At Blomidon, if we’re looking for silver linings, it gave us the opportunity to think through our vineyards in terms of what does well and what’s successful. We’ll be replanting some of our vinifera blocks to the hybrids that excel for us, like L’Acadie blanc and seyval blanc. In other cases, we’ve converted to vinifera that survived better (from the weather damage), like chardonnay, pinot noir, and gamay.”

What are hybrid grapes, anyway?

For a long time, hybrid grapes have been perceived as less desirable compared to vitis vinifera varieties. Hybrids are simply grapes that are a crossing of two vitis grapes. Typically, the grapes are genetically engineered to withstand certain extremities like winter frosts, which is why they’re more widely utilized by producers in Canada due to the nations’ unpredictable climate. However, dealing with the cheap prices that force high-yields and phylloxera prone varieties, these grapes are difficult to grow at a quality level, making high-caliber hybrid wines even more scarce.

The good news is that in recent years, producers have been fine-tuning the use of hybrids to create quality wines of wide appeal, even gaining the attention and appraisal of wine professionals and critics. Vidal ranks #6 for VQA grape production by volume in Ontario, with a significant piece of that being used for Icewine, a wine style that brought Canadian wine to fame on a global platform. This hybrid grape can ripen with high sugars in a cool-climate and provide medium to high acidity, making it a desirable Icewine candidate.

“With less treatments (in the vineyard), hybrids are better for the environment compared to vinifera.” – Benoit Girousssens, winemaker and vineyard manager

Baco noir, the French American hybrid grape, is one of the most widely planted hybrid grapes in Canada. Although baco is also planted in northeastern America, it is more commonly found in Canada across several provinces from east to west. Winemakers are more easily homing in on what the grape has to offer, which can be quite significant: soft, medium tannins, with medium acidity, and red cherry and chocolate notes. The grape can be compared to merlot or carmenere, and typically rings in at a much more affordable price point.

While some hybrid grapes have not yet achieved VQA status, like Frontenac noir or Frontenac blanc, due to their susceptible capabilities to display “foxy” qualities, more and more are becoming worthy of the quality status. Marquette is the most recent hybrid to gain VQA status in Ontario as of 2019.

Through continuous research within the vineyard and experienced winemakers taking a serious approach with the grapes, hybrids are becoming much more than something for wine snobs to snuff their noses at. Beyond delivering impeccable value, hybrids are certainly finding their place in the market, showing exceptionally well in Icewine and sweet, port-style wines, and additionally flourishing across the board in red and whites, uniquely elevating each region’s distinctive profile.

Hybrid GrapesHenry of Pelham 2022 ‘Speck Family Reserve’ Baco Noir

Henry of Pelham leads the charge for premium baco noir production and supplies 19 countries worldwide with their trademark hybrid grape. Their top tier Baco Noir from the Speck Family Reserve line is derived from old vines planted in 1984 within the Short Hills Bench sub-appellation of Niagara. It exudes generous aromas of red licorice, vanilla and cherry pie aromatics, with hints of cooked mushroom. A refined palate that is lush with red plum and whispers of hickory that intertwine with delicate soft tannins and an invigorating freshness. Extremely well-balanced and offers an indulgently juicy, persistent finish. ($27.95)



IcewineInniskillin 2023 Vidal Icewine

Responsible for shifting the world’s eyes to Canada for this distinct, luxurious wine style, Inniskillin utilizes the cold hardy hybrid grape, vidal, to craft a top-quality, balanced dessert wine. Dried apricot, melon and honey are displayed in true Icewine form upon a silky sweetness that’s cleansed by cool-climate acidity on a long finish. ($49.95)





Benjamin BridgeBenjamin Bridge 2023 Nova 7

This Nova Scotian Benjamin Bridge signature, Nova 7, is comprised of muscat, ortega, riesling, geisenheim, l’acadie, vidal, and petite pearl. A dazzling, palest-of-pink, hue and fine effervescence are a window to what it offers – a delicate, mineral-driven wonderment of florals and summer strawberries. Juicy acidity balances the sweetness with the likeness of the tartness within a fully ripe raspberry. Incredible structure and length. ($25.95)




BlomidonBlomidon 2023 Tidal Bay

The Blomidon Tidal Bay is a unique tri-hybrid blend of l’acadie blanc, seyval blanc and New York muscat. A true homage to Nova Scotia’s darling white wine, this wine boasts seaside terroir through an energetic palate brimming with vivacious acidity, lemon/lime notes, and a prolonged sea salt finish. The upbeat, crisp style is the perfect accompaniment for fresh ocean fare straight from the wines’ influential waters. ($23)




Hybrid GrapesKarlo Estates 2021 ‘Van Alstine’ Red

This certified vegan, fortified red wine is made with estate Frontenac noir from Prince Edward County, Ontario and sees 24 months in French oak prior to bottling. Red cherry, dried herbs, sweet spice aromas transition to savoury sweet, earthy, and chocolate notes on the palate. Dried fruits are seamlessly lifted by vibrant acidity that concludes with a long, flavoursome finish. ($33)




Hybrid GrapesVivace Estate Cavatina

This dessert wine produced in Amherstburg, Ontario is made with Foch grapes, fortified with Canadian spirits, and sweetened with iced Foch juice before undergoing six years of barrel age. The barreling plays a pivotal role on the palate, not overpowering, but cradling the sweet red fruit and savoury and smokey candied pecan notes. Rich and balanced, displaying smooth, inviting earth tones in length that keep drawing you in for the next sip. ($19)




VivaceVivace 2022 ‘Marcato’ Marquette

A marquette from Amherstburg, Ontario that introduces itself with fascinating and mouthwatering aromas of blueberry, cola, earth, and leather. Medium-bodied, with complex notes of fresh cranberry and dried cranberry, earth, cedar, and black licorice. Approachable soft tannins, medium acidity and overall structure display cleverly controlled winemaking tactics for a periodically wacky grape. A slight dusting of black pepper enters on a lengthy finish. ($35)




Rosehall Run Rosehall Run Pixie Sparkling Rosé 

A fun-filled sparkling rosé made predominately with Vidal and a splash of Pinot Noir. Flavours of ripe peach and fresh strawberries swirl around dancing bubbles and lively acidity, with a touch of sweetness on an approachable, balanced palate. A perfect sipper for a sunny day but would also pair nicely with summer salads or seafood appetizers. ($19.95)




Karlo EstatesKarlo Estates ‘Little Bug’ White

Little Bug White, named after the winery’s estate-born calico/tortoise shell cat with a duo coloured face, is a blend of 75% vidal and 25% Frontenac blanc from the 2019-2021 vintages. Core aromas and flavours begin with beeswax and honeysuckle notes. Attractive nutty nuances are invigorated with bursts of fresh orange and melon throughout the palate. Medium to full-bodied, with a touch of sweetness that is easily balanced and refreshed with a lip smacking, candied lemon-infused finish. ($22)




Hybrid GrapesVivace Etude

This Marechal Foch is full of flavour and complexity while offering an easy-drinking, delicate profile. Oak and wildberry aromas continue on a layered palate of juicy black raspberries, nutmeg, and woodsy characteristics. Rustic and fresh with a long, impactful finish. This would make a versatile food companion, pairing with local game to anything garden grown or foraged. ($15.95)


– Leah Spooner is a Canadian Wine Scholar and a contributing editor with VineRoutes


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