France's Hybrid Natural Wine Vanguard
Five wines from the radical côterie of French natural vignerons embracing hybrid grape varieties in recent years. Plus recent adventures in the Jura and the Forez.
The natural wine community of France, like its conventional counterpart, has long viewed hybrid grape varieties1 with disdain - as sort of a junior league of wine production, of interest only in subpar places where vitis vinifera can’t thrive. On this topic, French wine culture has notably lagged behind that of the USA, where natural winemakers like Deirdre Heekin of La Garagista and Pascaline Lepeltier and Nathan Kendall of Chëpìka have proven hybrids well-adapted to quality wine production in an Atlantic climate.
Only in the past few years have vocal enthusiasts of hybrid grape varieties begun to emerge among France’s most thoughtful natural wine radicals, including Beaujolais vignerons Romain des Grottes, Lilian Bauchet, and Hervé Ravera, Jura vignerons Didier Grappe and Valentin Morel, and Forez vignerons Nadia Beaune and Maxime Gros.
This small, passionate côterie of vignerons argue that today, thanks to hundreds of years of clonal reproduction, vitis vinifera varieties simply don’t thrive anywhere.
As Didier Grappe put it, when I spoke with him last May:
There are 10,000 grapes, but in France, just forty grapes make up 95% of the wine production. Those forty are an inbred, degenerate monoculture. They’re invalids that we keep alive with treatments. If we don’t treat them, they collapse.
Chardonnay, pinot noir, gamay, syrah, malbec - you name it. Farming them organically at what are considered viable yields requires regular application of copper and sulfur vineyard treatments. While such treatments are nowhere near as inherently noxious as the phytosanitary lobby and their self-interested minions throughout the wine industry like to suggest2, they are bothersome to apply, and harmful to the environment when applied carelessly.
So vignerons seeking to minimize copper and sulfur treatments - or eliminate them altogether - are turning to hybrid grape varieties, also known as cépages résistants, which tend to provide greater yields with vastly less need for treatments.
When you work in your vitis vinifera vines, it reeks of copper and sulfur. Then you go in your hybrids and it smells good There are only good sides. I’ll never again plant vitis vinifera in my life. I like the hybrids too much. - Didier Grappe
As recently as 1958, hybrid grape varieties accounted for as much as 30% of French vineyard surface. But they were officially banned from appellation wine production in 1951, and progressively disappeared thereafter.
Today, two conditions make France’s thriving natural wine scene well-adapted to the re-adoption of hybrid grapes. One is that, within the natural wine scene, no one gives a flying fig about France’s appellations, which to this day remain opposed to the admission of hybrid grape varieties. The other is that few within the French natural wine scene bother to market wines on the basis of grape variety.
There has long been one key argument against the cultivation of hybrid grape varieties, however. It’s that the wines usually don’t taste very good. Wines from hybrid grapes are typically slender in build, if not outright thin, lacking a certain fleshiness, a certain luminosity of fruit, compared to wines from vitis vinifera grapes.
Winemakers with no compunction about deploying modern enological innovation can intervene in various ways to beef out and alter hybrid wines. But this makes such wines useless for assessing the basic aesthetic viability of hybrid grapes.
This is why it feels newsworthy to encounter an excellent French natural wine from hybrid grapes. Such wines illuminate a certain off-ramp from a path of natural wine production that, for vignerons, seems to lead toward ever-greater struggles with climate, ever-lower yields, and ever-higher prices.
As Maxime Gros of Forez estate Les Rêves Oubliés puts it: “With hybrid wines, there’s nothing added in the vines, and nothing added in the wine. Already, that’s enormous.”
FRANCE’S HYBRID NATURAL WINE VANGUARD
Pictured above - and described below - are five big successes by hybrid grape enthusiasts in France’s natural wine scene. I mean “big success” in a purely aesthetic sense, unfortunately, as they’re all tiny micro-cuvées, rare as hens’ teeth. They’re worth seeking out though, as glimpses of what can be achieved in terms of fine French natural wine with practically treatment-free viticulture.
For subscribers, I’ve also included some accompanying material:
An afternoon PULLING WOOD in the EXCITING NEW JURA VINEYARD of KATIE WOROBECK aka MAISON MAENAD.
An INTERVIEW with Jura hybrid partisan DIDIER GRAPPE.
A visit to the FOREZ, where NADIA BEAUNE and MAXIME GROS of LES REVES OUBLIES are making gorgeous high-altitude old-vine wines from gamay and Seibel 5455.
ROMAIN DES GROTTES - VIN DE FRANCE “HYBRIDEZ-VOUS AVEC MOI CE SOIR”
Pinkish-copper in color, limpid and dry, with a mysterious tannicity, “Hybridez-Vous” is an angular, berry-toned direct-press rosé made with a mixture of red and white hybrid grapes (cabernet cantor and cabernet cortis for the former; souvignier gris, muscaris, helios, solaris for the latter). Its name is a wink to one of Des Grottes’ former gamay cuvées (“Voulez-Vous Gamay Avec Moi Ce Soir.” It’s curious 50cl bottle? Des Grottes had them lying around and chose them as means to further disseminate the wine’s minuscule production (just 250L). The wine shows remarkable personality, given the youth of the vines and its refreshing 11° alcohol.
LES REVES OUBLIES - VIN DE FRANCE "RESISTANCE 54/55”
A three-week, whole-cluster maceration of Seibel 5455, “Résistance” derives from two horse-plowed parcels planted in the 1950s on granitic basalt soils at over 600m altitude. It possesses a volume and a richness rare among hybrid reds. A fleeting, ephemeral sensation of residual sugar animates its flavors of china bark and fruit-leather. Magnums of the 2020 vintage saw aging in new oak barrel, while the 75cl bottles saw aging in steel tank.
Says winemaker Maxime Gros, “We’ve noticed that Seibel is quite peppy, and it resists maladies well, and there’s a good acidity. And there’s color. The only thing is, when you put it in the tank you say, ‘Wow, look at all those grapes,’ and as soon as you press, you say ‘Ouch, there’s nothing.’ There’s really thick skins.”
For subscribers: INTO THE FOREZ WITH LES REVES OUBLIES
MAISON MAENAD - VIN DE FRANCE “LES OUBLIES”
The only wine on this list not composed purely of hybrid varieties, “Les Oubliés” is a mystery, deriving from a 0.05ha rented parcel whose elderly owner’s parents planted it in the early 20th century. The co-plantation includes something locally known as “Beaujolais blanc” (but which is not identifiably chardonnay), gamay, gamay teinturier, and several unidentified hybrids, some which would be considered teinturier (evincing very dark, colorful juice).
“Some have thicker skins, but some don’t. Some have giant big bunches, some have big round berries,” says Worobeck. “I don’t know what they are. It’s all mixed-up.”
Worobeck made the 2020 with a two-week, whole-cluster, semi-carbonic maceration, without pigéage or pump-overs or addition of exogenous CO2. The wine aged for 11 months in barrel after manual pressing. It’s svelte and savory, with hints of currant amid the bramble and spice.
For subscribers: PULLING WOOD WITH MAISON MAENAD
DIDIER GRAPPE - VIN DE FRANCE “SEYVE-VILLARD - RESISTANT SOUS VOILE”
Sous-voile aging is surely one novel way to add complexity to Seyve-Villard. Lateral in profile, with a slightly lumpen, apple Jolly Rancher fruit beneath its fino aromas, the wine benefits from shaking up its lees in the bottle. Greater texture helps measure the wine’s otherwise clipped rhythm. (It is perhaps one instance where more lees in suspension at time of bottling would have been helpful.)
“It was really hot, and the vine had trouble supporting all its grapes,” recalls Grappe. “So we harvested it in three goes, taking only the ripe grapes, and leaving the rest to ripen further. It took three weeks, and we kept putting juice in the tank.”
For subscribers: AN INTERVIEW WITH DIDIER GRAPPE
LILIAN BAUCHET - VIN DE FRANCE “PLAN B”
A direct-press blend of souvignier gris and muscaris, Bauchet’s “Plan B” is particularly revolutionary for being a profound, mineral white from the Beaujolais, where such profiles are literally never found in the local chardonnay. I tasted the 2019 vintage of “Plan B” back in 2020 at a tasting held Sébastien Dervieux’s cellar in Anjou and was floored by its salinity, its pear fruit, its granite crunch; more recently, at the Bojalien event chez Romain des Grottes in early April, the spectacular 2021 vintage confirmed it was no fluke. “Plan B” needs to become the entire region’s “Plan A.”
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A September 2021 report about hybrid grape varieties in France by Norimitsu Onishi at the New York Times.
A May 2021 piece about American winemakers embracing hybrid grape varieties by Esther Mobley at the San Francisco Chronicle.
An April 2020 primer on the incipient rise of hybrid grapes by Jamie Goode at Vine Pair, including perspective on the German PIWI scene.
A July 2018 piece on the emergence of hybrid grape proponents in the USA by Peter Weltman at Seven-Fifty Daily.
Hybrid grape varieties are crosses of vitis vinifera (the grape vine species that comprises the varieties of Europe and Central Asia) with North American vine species (including vitis riparia, vitis rupestris, and vitis labrusca) that enjoy greater resistance to vineyard pests like phylloxera, oidium, and mildew.