THE FRENCH HYBIRDS
During the phylloxera epidemic, in the mid to late 19th Centruy in Europe,
several families in France, (such as the Seibel and Villard families) took a
unique approach to solving the phylloxera problem. They cross bred
European vines with wild American vines and achieved plants that carried
over enough of the American disease resistance to be grown on their own
roots. These vines were so successful that at one time over one-third of
French vineyards were planted to these “French-American Hybrids”.
Although these vines resembled their American parents in being disease
resistant, easy to grow, and more winter hardy, they also retained a
considerable amount of the American wild flavors. Fortunately however, the
wines made from these hybrids did not taste particularly wild when young. It
was only as the wines aged, usually more than a year, that they began to
develop the rather unpleasant off flavors caused by the American genes. In
the late 19th and early 20th Century in France this was not a problem since
almost all wine made from these grapes was cheap local wine that was
consumed when very young.
Today, the hybrids are hardly grown in France at all. The French government
has systematically supervised the pulling up of all the hybrid vineyards and
has seen that they are replaced by pure Vinifera. Hybrids are grown today
mainly in those areas where sub zero winter temperatures often kill the
tender Vinifera vines such as eastern North America and in a few odd spots
in Eastern Europe or England.
The Curse of Jaeger 70
The reasons for the unfavorable reputation of the hybrids lie in the off flavors
caused by the wild American parents that were used in breeding them.
Oddly, when the vine breeding families of the 19th Century began breeding
grape vines they almost always used one single American vine, Jaeger 70,
as the American parent. For this reason almost every hybrid is descended
from Jaeger 70. (The few exceptions are no better, being descended from
Vinifera crossed with the foxy V. Labrusca or the odiferous V. Riparia or V.
Rupestris which were used primarily as rootstocks.)
Jaeger 70’s problem is that it is a Rupestris x Lincecumii cross. Lincecumii
has a flavor and smell that is similar to burning electrical insulation. Those
wines made from grapes descended from Jaeger 70 are sometimes more
kindly referred to as having an animal, shoe polish, or bituminous smell. In
any event both the smell and the taste are quite unpleasant.
The Woes of Puberty
One invariable characteristic of the French-hybrid wines descended from
Jaeger 70 is that they resemble their European Vinifera parentage when
young (under 6 months), but as they age they more and more take on the
characteristics of the American parent. This accounts for the fact that some of
the young white French Hybrid wines can be quite pleasant, (and even
charming when very young) but all red wines made from French hybrid
grapes become increasing odd smelling and tasting as they age.
Due to the harsh flavors of French Hybrids, the most successful wines today
are made into sweet desert type wines where the sugar will mask their
harshness and astringency (e.g., Vignoles and Vidal).
A few breeders in Russia and elsewhere have tried the Vitis Amurensis
which is native to eastern Asia. (Its flavors have been described as
“appalling" and/or "revolting”). The problem with almost all wild grapes, (with
the notable exception of Vitis Cinerea) is that they have over the eons
developed flavor characteristics that are meant to appeal to the animals that
eat their large berries and spread the seeds, such as bears, wolves, buffalo,
opossums, etc. The flavors that these animals find appealing are not
attractive to human beings.
In the final, sad, analysis French Hybrids today are “vines of necessity”,
grown only in places where something better won’t grow. They are not vines