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Can Hybrid Grapes Be the Solution For the Future?

Hybrid grapes might very well be the future for tackling the growing issues with climate change such as rising temperatures, drought, changing rainfall patterns, hail, wildfires, and more. However, many wine producers in traditional wine areas are still very skeptical and resistant to implementing hybrid grapes, thinking they will entirely modify the historical wines they are producing with native grapes. In “newer” wine regions in colder climates, growing hybrid grapes is the normality and probably the only way to produce wine.

Why all this resistance in classic wine regions?

Let us delve deeper into the fascinating world of hybrid grapes.

At a seminar called “Vitigni Resistenti: passato, presente e futuro” (Resistant grape varieties: past, present, and future), which was organized in association with the Emozioni dal Mondo event in Bergamo, the topic was analyzed further. Different speakers in the Italian and international scientific and journalistic fields discussed the past, present, and future of hybrid grapes in today’s wine industry.

Emozioni dal Mondo is a wine competition that specifically focuses on wines made with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon from various regions around the world. This competition was founded in 2004 after the idea of oenologist Sergio Cantoni and is supported by the Valcalepio consortium and the Vignaioli Bergamaschi s.c.a. cooperative.

A Climate in Constant Change

The changing climate is posing a significant challenge to viticulture worldwide. I’m not trying to make doomsday predictions, but the rising global temperatures and shifting weather patterns are causing significant changes. Some researchers warn that glaciers are melting, while others, like Bill Gates, have a different perspective on the severity of climate change (“it’s not the end of the planet). Who is right is not for me to say.

Climate change is becoming an increasingly challenging issue globally and affecting numerous industries, including viticulture. Researchers focus on developing effective methods to cope with and adapt to the changing climate. Some measures under consideration include hybrid rootstocks and grapes that can withstand diseases, high temperatures, droughts, and other environmental stressors.

See my article about a different wine attitude: 3 Compelling Reasons And Solutions To Be Anti-Wine Lists

What about Piwi grapes?

The presentations delivered at the seminar were highly stimulating and sparked intense discussions about the position of Piwi grapes in Italy and their potential integration. Hybrid grapes were initially developed in the US, followed by Canada and France in the early 19th century. In the mid-to-late 19th century, further research into hybrid grapes was conducted in Germany, where they were referred to as Pilzwiderstandsfähig or Piwi grapes. This means that they are fungus-resistant grapes. The early-developed hybrids did not give wines of high quality and often had foxy aromas or taste.

From the 15th century onwards, historical events such as the colonization of the Americas and the Industrial Revolution that took off in the 18th century resulted in increased travel and movement of people, as well as the exchange of goods across the world. As travel became faster in the late 18th century, grapes began to be transported more frequently between continents.

The American Vitis grape had already developed a strong resistance to phylloxera, which is an insect that attacks both the foliage and the rootstock, as well as to fungus diseases like downy and powdery mildew. These are all plant diseases that originate from the American continent. In the 19th century, American grape varieties were imported to Europe. Unfortunately, this led to the outbreak of phylloxera in 1863, which destroyed a significant portion of the vineyards. To combat the problem, European Vitis vinifera grapes were grafted onto American rootstock, which proved a successful solution.

During the 20th century, the hybrid grapes developed further, for example by the work carried out at the University of Freiburg in the 1970s onwards where hybrids such as Bronner, Solaris, Muscaris, Souvignier Gris, Cabernet Cortis to name a few were created. These are hybrid grapes that we are well familiar with today.

The situation of Piwi grapes today in Italy

At the seminar in Bergamo, the discussion centered around the name (Piwi), the hybrid grapes being resistant and tolerant but not immune to diseases, how to get them more widely accepted in the Italian wine world, how to integrate them into the Italian wine appellations, etc.

Most of the speakers with a scientific background coming from different universities, Fondazione Mach, and the Rauscedo nursery in Friuli were positive about the current research and development they are doing with Piwi grapes. They tried to explain the benefits for the future of agriculture and our environment by implementing hybrid grapes more and more. During the discussion, Filippo Mobrici, the president of Barbera, Vini d’Asti, and Monferrato consortium, as well as the vice president of Federdoc, presented a challenging perspective. He argued that in Piemonte, it is difficult to integrate grape varieties such as Nebbiolo and Barbera with hybrid grapes. This is because they mainly make monovarietal wines. He emphasized that they need to develop resistance against the Flavescenza Dorata disease rather than downy and powdery mildew.

Understandably, there is more ‘resistance’ to hybrid grapes in wine areas where they are relying on the production of monovarietal wines and within DOC or DOCG designations and where the market value is very high. It might be more of a fear of losing out on the market if they start inserting hybrid grapes in Barolo or Brunello wines. However, if the EU in 2021 granted the use of hybrid grapes in PDOs, and the addition of hybrid grapes was subsequently approved in Bordeaux and Champagne, I do not see why it would not be possible in important Italian denominations.

The wine producers who cultivate Piwi grapes are very eager to move forward and get more recognition and support. Terre di Ger is a winery in Friuli-Venezia Giulia dedicated to making wines with Piwi grapes. They reposted the article “Piwi sì, Piwi no …“se famo du’ spaghi” by Luca Gonzato regarding the seminar in Bergamo and added the following comment:

Stiamo ancora discutendo sulle stesse posizioni di quattro anni fa mentre ci sono vini che meritano considerazione e ci sono viticoltori che fanno investimenti e vanno avanti…

(My transl.: We are still discussing the same topics as four years ago, yet there are wines that deserve consideration and there are winemakers who make investments and move forward…)

At a wine dinner the other week, where three Vernaccia di San Gimignano producers were present, I daringly asked them their opinion on the future of hybrid grapes. Just like Filippo Mobrici, they thought it would be difficult to integrate hybrid grapes in Vernaccia wines because it is a native grape with unique characteristics. Furthermore, Vernaccia is only grown in the San Gimignano area giving it its particular terroir-related traits. However, they were not opposed to producing piwi-wines, in general.

Cesanese vineyard, regenerative agriculture

What About “Purezza”, i.e. Monovarietal Wines?

Professor Attilio Scienza considers “purezza”, i.e. monovarietal wines, as a bit of a magical word. Nowadays, there is a growing trend towards seeking out monovarietal wines, to fully appreciate the distinctive qualities of an indigenous grape. This quest for native grape varieties has gained momentum in recent decades, but it begs the question – is this a fabricated history? Did people consume monovarietal wines in the past? It seems like different grape varieties often were planted together in vineyard plots and vinified together. Is it so important to drink monovarietal wines? Well, I admit that I am passionate about indigenous grapes and monovarietal wines too. But we can all change our taste.

Years ago, I liked rounder wines in a more “international style” as they say here in Italy, meaning more powerful and overoaked wines blended with French grapes. By tasting more and more wines my taste evolved. Today, the powerful and often overconcentrated or oaked wines in parkerized style have given way to fresher, more vertical, elegant, and drinkable wines. I believe that also wine appellations and their regulations can change, it just takes a bit longer time.

And, hey, if they started allowing French grapes in many important Italian appellations after the creation of Supertuscans, I do not see the big deal of adding hybrid grapes. ๐Ÿ˜‰

Does the Future Lie in Cisgenesis?

In an interview at Vinitaly earlier this spring, Professor Scienza talked about Agricultural Assisted Evolution Techniques (AETs) as a way to make indigenous grape varieties disease-resistant. What it means is that they add or detract a gene or set of genes to a grape variety from a similar and compatible Vitis plant. In this sense, he claims that it is very different from GMOs which add genes from completely different species. In June this year, the EU Commission presented a draft legislation regarding AETs. There is, of course, an ethical point of view here regarding food, and in this case grape security, safety, and sustainability.

The AET-developed grape variety would be like a clone of for example Nebbiolo. Professor Scienza underlined, in this context, that it is the “Mestizo“, i.e. the mix (referring historically to a person of mixed European and indigenous non-European ancestry) “that will save us.”

Whether Piwi or AETs…

…hybrid grapes that are resistant to diseases, high temperatures, drought, etc. will indeed be important to integrate into the viticulture of the future. Furthermore, it should not only be to reduce the number of treatments and use of chemicals, the goal ought to be organically grown grapes and agriculture without the use of chemical products. The hybrid grapes are a driving force to arrive at that goal.

Then, of course, I understand some of the resistance but I do not think indigenous grapes will disappear, some clones will surely prove to be more resistant than others. Hybrid grapes can be an essential part of sustainable viticulture in the future.

I am no specialist on hybrid grapes so I have probably missed important points of view.

What are your thoughts?

The speakers at the seminar were:

  • Luigi Bavaresco, Associate Professor, Faculty of Agriculture, Food, and Environmental Sciences at Universitá Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Piacenza
  • Marco Stefanini, Head of Genetics Unit and Genetic Improvement of the Vine, Fondazione Mach
  • Ermanno Mauri, Rauscedo Nursery Cooperative, Friuli
  • Davide Modina, University of Milan
  • Franc Cus, University of Ljubljana, Slovenia
  • Luca Gonzato, the blog Vini e Viti Resistenti
  • Francesca Venturi, University of Pisa
  • Filippo Mobrici, president of Barbera, Vini d’Asti, and Monferrato consortium, and vice president of Federdoc
Katarina Andersson

Seen often at wine events streaming live, Katarina is a wine writer, wine educator, social media strategist, and translator. She is the founder of WinesOfItaly LiveStream. She has been a guest at The Cellar, hosted by Richard Glover, at Wine Two Five, a podcast hosted by Stephanie Davis and Valerie Caruso, and at the Twitter chat #WiningHourChat founded by Li Valentine.

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