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Grape crossers

Appellation America
Jo Diaz

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Most folks don’t realize it, but most of the grapevines we know and love are plants that, without any aid by humans, are the result of sex in the wild. Cabernet-Sauvignon, for example, is a natural cross pollination of two plants of the same species: Sauvignon blanc and Cabernet franc. The tryst twixt Pinot noir and Gouais resulted in Chardonnay.

Hundreds or thousands of years after these natural matings, human beings came along and played vine yentas. We intentionally crossed same species varieties and got new crosses. Why? Compromise! Want a grape that will do well in a warm climate but still retain some class? Looking for a grape that smells something like a thoroughbred but can be picked before the bad weather sets in?

Probably the most famous of the reds is Petite Sirah. It’s a cross of the classic Syrah grape with the very much lesser known variety called Peloursin. It was found in the experimental nursery of a Dr. Durif in southern France.

Most (75%) of the 11,000 or so acres of it are planted in California. There are about 1,100 acres of it in Australia where they call it Durif. México and Chile each have about 500 acres and there are patches in Israel, South Africa and Brazil.

You might find an OZ Durif here or there but you are much more likely to find a CA Petite Sirah. These examples tend toward the vividly dark, sometimes blue-black color. They’re not known for much varietal character on the nose: usually you’ll get more the smell of the oak. On the palate they are rich and usually full-bodied and smooth: great wintertime reds. High end examples include Ridge’s Lytton Estate and David Bruce’s plain California labeling. Good value examples include the Guenoc, the McManis and the Concannon “Conservancy”. This latter winery has been growing the grape for over 130 years. Also, look for the Bogle and especially the Foppiano interpretations. To learn more about the grape, go to PSIloveyou.org.

South Africa gives us the Pinotage grape. It’s a cross of the Pinot noir with the Cinsault grape, one which the South Africans used to call “Hermitage”. It was bred almost 90 years ago by a viticulturist named Perold. South Africa’s climate – at least those regions known back then –was more like the hot Californian. Perold knew the Cinsault loved the heat but didn’t have much in elegance. Pinot noir didn’t do so well in hot climes but it did show some finesse. Hence, this vinous compromise.

You can try two ends of the price range in the Robertson version ($8) and the much more complex style that Kanonkop puts out ($36). As expected, South Africa has the majority of the grape’s estimated acreage of 18,000 –97%. But Brazil, New Zealand and nearby Zimbabwe scale have a little with even the US and Canada sporting a few acres.

Müller-Thurgau is one of the oldest of the white crossings, created by a Dr. Müller who was a Swiss botantist born in Thurgau. Once thought to be a crossing of the famed Riesling with Silvaner, DNA analysis shows it to be Riesling crossed with a commercially extinct variety called Madeleine Royale.

Müller was working in Geisenheim, Germany at the time and had a hand in putting the grape to the top of the list in terms of plantings for many years. Today, at 33,400 acres, it is still the 2nd most widely planted grape in Germany (after Riesling). Its bright side was that it was an early ripener in a cold country; the downside is that it shared very little finesse with its high-end parent. It will be tough to find a German wine so-labeled as most of it goes into low-end blends like Liebfraumilch.

But northern Italy’s Trentino-Alto Adige region grows just over 2,700 acres of it. And they make it in the dry style, more Alsatian French than semi-sweet German. Alois Lageder makes a good one but look out for the version from Pojer e Sandri. Neither one is oak aged.

Another German cross is the Kerner. Germany sports just over 7,700 acres of it. But, like Müller-Thurgau, you aren’t likely to find it labeled on its own. Look again just south to Italy’s coolest, most mountainous region: Trentino-Alto Adige, specifically the Valle Isarco near the Austrian border. At a whopping 200 acres, there may be others on the market but the only one I could find is the Abbazia di Novacella, a delicious, minerally dry wine at $20. Kerner is a cross of the Riesling with the Trollinger.

There are others. Ruby Cabernet is a cross of Cabernet Sauvignon and Carignan grown widely in CA. But most of its wine goes into bulk red blends. Same goes for Carnelian, Centurion. Ditto Egiodola, Marselan, Chenanson, Portan and Caladoc in southern France. Chasan and Danlas are French whites used in the south. The list keeps growing and global warming will only increase it.