Breeding cabernet for the cold winters of North America

With all the great wine already made from grapes that are admirably adapted to their soil and climate, why would anyone want to invent a new kind of grape? Shouldn’t we just let nature be?

Fact is, having great pinot from Burgundy (okay, and Oregon, and Sonoma Coast…),  solid cabernets from Bordeaux (and California, and Chile, and…) or amazing sangiovese from Tuscany (and… that’s pretty much it), isn’t a natural thing. It’s the result of centuries of active work in the vineyard to pick the grape varieties that work best in a certain climate, on a certain soil, etc. A lot of nurture to get nature where humans want it to go.

Even more active, in that respect, are the many attempts by various viticulturists – or just farmers with spare time and a lot of creativity – to create new varieties from breeding together different kinds of grapes. That’s where hybrids like Maréchal Foch, Seyval, Müller-Thurgau, pinotage and so many others come from.

One of the great incentives for creating new varieties is responding to climate-related challenges – especially the cold, cold winters of more northerly regions. In a lot of places in Canada, for instance, you get enough sunshine and heat to ripen grapes, but also bitterly cold winters that can kill a lot of vines. If you create a hardy variety that tastes good and survives sub-zero temperatures, you’ll make a lot of would-be winemakers happy.

Vignerons in Quebec, for instance, would be hard pressed to make decent wine (which they do make) without hybrids such as the ones created in the last half-century by Elmer Swenson, a particularly resourceful grape breeder from Minnesota, who died in 2004 at the ripe age of 91. Sainte-Croix, Saint-Pépin, Sabrevois and Prairie Star are the best-known and the most used of the hybrids created by the patron saint of northern grape-growing. In Québec, Sainte-Croix is used to make some solid red wines that can even benefit from a few years of cellaring. And we’ll probably see wines from these hybrids improving, as viticulturists and winemakers improve their techniques and learn more about these grapes.

Quebec winemakers will probably be very excited to hear about the new hybrid created by a company called Davis Viticultural Research: crimson caberrnet. As a great post on Enobytes reports, this new grape has been created by crossing Norton, one of the most appreciated varieties of North American native grapes, with Cabernet Sauvignon, creating a more hardy, less disease-prone kind of cab that can withstand temperatures at least as low as -9°F (-22°C). Impressive.

Of course, we’ll have to see what the wines taste like, before getting overly excited. But that will be coming soon. First wines are being made from the 2007 vintage, and about thirty wineries are currently experimenting with the crimson cab. Can’t wait to see if it turns out to be the Great American Grape.

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