The hybrid resurgence

The notion of hybrid grape varieties and the creation of numerous varieties of new grapes has arisen from the need to save traditional European vines (Vitis vinifera)species) which were attacked by cryptogamic diseases (powdery mildew, downy mildew, etc.) and decimated by phylloxera at the end of the 19th century. Today, there is an added need to reduce phytosanitary inputs and adapt to climate change.

At the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, the salvation of the European vineyards came in the form of American grape varieties (Vitis berlandieri, riparia, rupestris, labrusca species), which resisted phylloxera damage as well as vine diseases, to create interspecific (cross species) hybrids: either so-called "direct producer" hybrids (HPD) - capable of producing grapes - resulting from crossing American species grape varieties with each other (such as Noah or Clinton), or the crossing of American grape varieties with European grape varieties (such as Baco Blanc, the only hybrid still present in a French appellation, that of Armagnac), or hybrids designed not as direct producers but as rootstocks for the replanting of European grape varieties.

With the aim of marrying the resistance of American grape varieties and the qualities of European grape varieties, rootstocks emerged as the most effective way to reconstitute vineyards at the expense of HPDs, which were discredited from a gustatory point of view. In practice, six historical hybrids (Noah, Clinton, Isabelle, Othello, Jacquez, Herbemont) were banned from appellation wines from 1927, and around twenty others were "authorized" (Rayon d'Or, Ravat Blanc, Plantet, Villard Noir and Blanc, etc.) before also being excluded: a condemnation that cast a lasting, even definitive, discredit on hybrids in France. Nevertheless, by the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, thousands of hybrids were created by French hybridizers who became famous either for their HPDs (such as Albert Seibel, 1844-1936) or for their rootstocks (such as Georges Couderc, 1850-1928).

However, faced with the inevitable weakening of a plant reproduced by vegetative (asexual) propagation - cutting, grafting, layering - and the ever-increasing pressure from vine pests and diseases, the search for resistant grape varieties continued and developed from the 1960s-70s. This resulted in increasingly refined varieties, derived from crosses of European grape varieties and American or even Asian vines (Vitis amurensis), where the Vitis vinifera component is increasingly pronounced and the non-Vitis vinifera component reduced to the minimum necessary for resistance capacity. This work is largely credited to German and Swiss researchers, creators of grape varieties such as Bronner, Souvignier Gris, Solaris, Villaris, Cabernet Jura, etc.

At the same time in France, the INRA (National Institute for Agricultural Research) turned towards "métis" (hybrids resulting from exclusively intraspecific crosses of Vitis vinifera, such as Caladoc and Marselan), and persisted in seeing hybrids as quasi-heretical. Similarly quasi-heretical was the scientist Alain Bouquet, a pioneering (though side-lined) researcher at the INRA who managed to create grape varieties resistant to powdery mildew and downy mildew by crossing with Muscadinia rotundifolia, a non-Vitis American wild species: it was only after his death (2010) that his work was recognised, and the "Bouquet" varieties are now part of many experimental plots and, ironically, contribute to the creation of so-called "ResDur" (Durable Resistance) grape varieties by INRA (now approved Floréal, Voltis, Artaban, Vidoc, etc.). Italian breeders have also pursued the creation of original resistant grape varieties, such as the Krietos and Rythos Sauvignons, Cabernet Volos, Pinot Kors, or Volturnis. In this context of renewed interest in hybrids, an international association for the promotion of "fungus-resistant grape varieties," abbreviated PIWI from the German "pilzwiderstandsfähige," was founded in Switzerland in the early 2000s, giving rise to numerous new vine varieties and the wines derived from them. However, only with time can the style of wines and their expression of terroir be truly evaluated.

The issue of hybrids intersects with three major current imperatives: reducing phytosanitary treatments, adapting to climate change and improving quality. The solutions proposed by new creations partly address the multiple issues that animate the world of wine (including winemakers, nurseries, breeders, researchers, oenologists, tasters, etc.). Valentin Morel, winemaker from the Jura who defends "natural" wines and hybrids (in addition to his traditional grape varieties), author of a book that courageously addresses the subject (Un autre vin, Flammarion Editions, 2023) and co-founder in 2023 of the Vitis Batardus Liberata association with other winemakers like Lilian Bauchet (Beaujolais), believes that "hybrids allow for a less interventionist viticulture, gentler, more in line with the vision of the natural wine that we defend," and that the various resistances carried by hybrids are "factors enabling a change of paradigm in viticulture ».