Hybrid Revolution

Interspecies grapes are coming to Long Island Wine Country.

Dave Corwith_Mark JordanFarmer Dave Corwith is taking a chance on the grapevine hybrid Arandell.

“I think Arandell is cool,” says Corwith, an airline pilot and grape grower from a longtime local farming family, who was on his tractor in his two-acre hobby vineyard in Water Mill this April, putting in 300 new Arandell plants.

Dave Corwith is planting Arandell. Why is this news? Because it’s the first serious effort to make wine from a hybrid grape variety in the Long Island wine region—in other words, not chardonnay or merlot, or any of the other traditional European varieties of the species Vitis vinifera, but a brand-new variety of grape that is a cross between V. vinifera and the new-world natives Vitis labrusca and/or riparia.

“I think Arandell is cool,” says Corwith, an airline pilot and grape grower from a longtime local farming family, who was on his tractor in his two-acre hobby vineyard in Water Mill this April, putting in 300 new Arandell plants. “We’re going to make a wine that’s something a little different from what everyone else has. I’m pretty excited about it.”

Arandell wine is described as having appealing blueberry notes, and Corwith thinks it will make a great rosé or medium-bodied red. Arándano means blueberry in Spanish, and the “ell” at the end is for Cornell, where it was created. At the university’s prolific grape-breeding program, it was known only as NY95.0301.01 until officially launched last year. It joins new grape Aromella and other Cornell cultivars like Valvin Muscat, Noiret and old standbys like Geneva Red and Traminette. They are very disease resistant compared to vinifera and require much less spraying of pesticides and fungicides. That quality fits well with the trend toward sustainable viticulture, which minimizes chemical use as much as possible. It also saves money, because chemicals are shockingly expensive.

“I put in a couple of Arandell vines last year to see how they would do, and there was a noticeable difference,” Corwith says. The vines showed almost no disease issues compared to the vinifera next to them. “It’s a low-spray program, which is great.”

As for how the vines will fare in our region, the South Fork has a slightly cooler climate than the North Fork, and growers can have trouble ripening the cabs and merlot. Corwith thinks Arandell will do better, like Northern European vinifera reds Dornfelder and lemberger, of which he also has plantings, because these reds are bred for a cooler climate to begin with. In fact, hybrids are very cold tolerant and prevalent in the northern U.S. and Canada where vinifera will not readily grow.

Corwith isn’t totally alone at the frontier of the hybrid thing. Frank Scarola has been quietly growing an acre of Marquette behind Cedar House, his bed-and-breakfast in Mattituck. It’s more to add ambience; Scarola makes his own wine from grapes purchased locally, but he wanted something on-site that would be attractive but not require a lot of spraying, what with family, guests and pets roaming around. Marquette, a “grandson” of pinot noir that, unusually, contains genes of the wild grapevine Vitis riparia, apparently can make a complex wine with good tannins and notes of cherry, berry and spice. So Scarola is going to give it a shot; this will be the first year the grapes are harvested to make rosé wine or are possibly blended into other reds.

“The vines have been doing very well and are very vigorous,” he says. “From a growing perspective, the only issue I have found is Phomopsis [a kind of fungus], which I plan to keep in check this year.”

So why aren’t more people on Long Island growing hybrids? It’s true that the most famous vinifera grapes in the world—chardonnay, merlot, cabernet franc and so on—grow better here than anywhere else on the East Coast, and they make high-quality wines that sell well. Since Colonial times, varieties of labrusca have been vinified, but labrusca wine is said to have a musky or “foxy” quality, and it lacks the complexity and longevity of vinifera wine. Many say this is not the case with the new hybrids, because they have clean flavors, complexity and even aging potential. Some are beginning to define other regions, like baco noir in the Hudson Valley. But overall, the hybrid wines still aren’t as highly regarded as vinifera wines and can cause confusion for consumers.

“I would say there’s little interest in hybrids here, and I’m not really sure why that is,” says Alice Wise, wine grape researcher at Cornell University’s Long Island Horticultural Research and Extension Center in Riverhead. People are getting good results elsewhere, she adds, so hybrids could have their place on Long Island. But they’re not foolproof. Wise gets mixed results at her test vineyard; she found that Norton, a popular hybrid that makes a nice red, won’t ripen here because there’s not enough heat, and her own Arandell test vines had to be pulled out because they were infected with leafroll virus.

While hybrids will likely never topple the reign of vinifera when it comes to the high standards of serious wine aficionados, they add to the domestic market’s need to meet the increasing demand for good wine and can help new wine regions find their identity. Hybrids that do well in highly localized microclimates open up new possibilities. And fewer chemicals are always a good thing. These new grapes are a homegrown innovation, a blend of old and new, and in that way, very American. As Scarola said, “It’s fun to experiment.” That’s not something you hear often in the Old World. 

Gwendolen Groocock is the editor of the Greenport Guide, and writes about food, wine, travel and mommyhood from her home on the North Fork.

While hybrids will likely never topple the reign of vinifera when it comes to the high standards of serious wine aficionados, they add to the domestic market’s need to meet the increasing demand for good wine and can help new wine regions find their identity.

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