- New hybrid varieties are genetically resistant to Pierce’s Disease, some also to ailments like Powdery and Downy mildew.
- In Germany, PIWI - fungus resistant grape varieties - were planted for resistance to phylloxera and mildews, but had problems with their taste.
- Because PIWIs could offer high volumes at lower prices, they were initially used to bulk up low-priced wines.
- Today, perceptions are changing. PIWIs are used to make more premium wines. Next challenge is to find a suitable marketing strategy.
The three red and two white varieties share several things. Most importantly, they contain genetic resistance to Pierce’s Disease, a widespread bacterial infection that leads to vine death and costs growers in California an estimated $100m every year. They are also all hybrids: the children of at least two different vine species. In this case, Walker crossed the traditional European grapevine species Vitis Vinifera with Vitis Arizonica, a species from the southwestern USA and northern Mexico. It has a dominant gene for resistance to Pierce’s disease, which it lends to the genetic mix of his new varieties.
“Hybrids change the way that you work.”
The practical benefits of hybrid varieties are well understood. “They change the way that you work”, says Jonathan Ducourt, whose family winery in Bordeaux produced its first vintage from hybrid grapes in 2016. “Because they are disease resistant, there is less spraying, and less stress during the growing season”, he says, referring to the fact that many hybrid varieties have good resistance to ailments like Powdery and Downy mildew.
Martin Darting, a viticulture consultant based in Germany, suggests that growers who normally spray between 10-15 times during the growing season can reduce this to just two rounds with the tractor. “This means that you save around 600 litres of fuel per hectare each year”, he estimates, also pointing out that soil compaction and labour costs will be reduced, while yields will be more consistent. This brings significant economic benefits. “There’s less spraying, less machines, less manpower”, he concludes.
The history of PIWI
Both Darting and Ducourt are working with PIWI varieties. PIWI is a German abbreviation of Pilzwiderstandsfähige, which translates to fungus resistant grape varieties. These have a minimum 85% vinifera parentage and are bred with American species to build disease resistance, but their supporters argue that they shouldn’t be called hybrids.
“The first generation of hybrids in Europe were planted out of necessity – for resistance to phylloxera and mildews – but they had an unpleasant fox aroma”, says Marion Rockstroh-Kruft, a volunteer for international relations at PIWI international, the membership organization that is championing these new varieties. “When growers could return to planting Vinifera, there was a whole movement of getting hybrids out; attempts to distinguish them. That’s the reason we don’t use the term hybrid - it has negative connotations”.
Planted in lesser areas
Darting suggests that the historical issues with hybrids were partly due to the way that they were grown. “At the beginning, they were planted in lesser areas that weren’t good, so it was hard to make a high quality wine”, he says, adding that PIWIs have the capacity to bear a huge amount of fruit. This can be beneficial for growers seeking quantity, “but it’s important to control the yield to ensure quality”, Darting says. This is no different to vinifera.
“At the beginning, most of the PIWI grapes were used to blend into wine.”
Because PIWIs could offer high volumes at lower prices, they were initially used to bulk up low-priced wines. “At the beginning, most of the PIWI grapes were used to blend into wine - up to 15% - without quoting the name of the grape. This was the major selling point initially: You can reduce costs and still earn the same amount of money”, says Darting. In other words, they were aiming for quantity over quality.
Today, things are changing. The positive environmental aspect is appealing to producers like Ducourt, who is using PIWIs to make more premium wines. Its Metissage range, made with 100% PIWI varieties, retails at $15-20. The family were inspired to work with these varieties after tasting PIWI wines from the South of France: “We realized that the environmental benefits are huge - and the wine tasted good”, says Jonathan Ducourt. In Europe, then, growers seem to be motivated by a sense of pragmatism: lower costs, better environmental practices, consistent yields, and good quality.
…and political dimensions
On the other side of the Atlantic, part of the appeal is political. Jahdé Marley is the founder of Anything But Vinifera (ABV), a summit that brings together all those with an interest in wines from hybrid and native varieties, as well as rice and fruit ferments. “There is only a very certain climate where vitis vinifera grapes can be grown organically”, she says, suggesting that this tends to correlate with areas where land prices are high, blocking anyone without significant means from getting involved.
“I am a black woman in wine, and I know what it is to come from an intentionally marginalized community and get access to these spaces. When you use non-vinifera varieties, land prices drop. People whose communities mirror mine can participate because we’ve moved out of California and into other regions. ABV is the intersection of sustainability, economics, and social justice”, she says.
Wines not owned by tradition
Aileen Sevier is VP of Strategy & Marketing at Early Mountain Vineyards in Virginia, a state where hybrids have been planted many years thanks to their mildew-resistant qualities. She observes parallels with the natural wine community, where there is a rebellious appeal to wines that aren’t owned by tradition. “Where the natural wine community was 10-15 years ago – cutting edge – is where hybrids are today”, she says.
Early Mountain is currently considering a new line of sparkling wines using hybrids – a way to tap into the market for hybrids, and the surging demand for sparkling wine. Sevier expects the wines to be seen as “natty adjacent, fitting into the sort of fine wine shop with a lot of natural wine, but that also appreciates fruit-driven glou-glou”. The winery also has the advantage of having significant direct-to-consumer sales, meaning that they will be able to explain the wines to customers directly.
Looking for a suitable marketing strategy
Ducourt’s second project with PIWIs is called Le Chant des Sirènes, a 50/50 blend of PIWI and vinifera varieties. Rather than explaining hybrids, the conversation is now focused on new and rare varieties. “We tell people that it’s a new variety for Bordeaux, and it’s good, so try it. Then people ask fewer questions”, says Ducourt, who reports greater success with this strategy.
“I have been pleasantly surprised that consumers are way more open-minded than wine professionals”, says Marley, who suggests that it is easier to sell hybrids to consumers than to the trade, who are less accepting of the varieties.
“I have been pleasantly surprised that consumers are way more open-minded than wine professionals.”
This should concern those who are seeking sustainable solutions to major vine diseases like Pierce’s. Dario Cantu, a molecular geneticist and collaborator of Andrew Walker outlines the challenge at hand: “Nothing moves until the consumers move, but for the consumers to change habits, the industry has to move”, he says. “The industry has been very supportive, but whether they’re ready to move or adapt? I’m not sure.”
The practical – and environmental - reasons for considering hybrids and PIWIs are well understood. And while they might not yet be challenging the Grands Crus, they are readily accepted by some groups of consumers. We can thank science experts for their development, but perhaps too much wine expertise is holding hybrids back. “Most consumers don’t know the difference”, Darting says playfully. “They either like it, or they don’t like it. Perhaps the problem doesn’t lie with the consumers, but with the experts.”