Local Sommeliers Get a Master Class in Hybrid Grapes

“How do you assess a hybrid when a lot of sommeliers don’t have a blueprint for what these wines should taste like?” asks Scott Zoccolilo of Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse in Philadelphia.

On October 25, the Pennsylvania Winery Association gathered a group of sommeliers at Paradocx Vineyard in Chester County to provide that blueprint. The energetic session introduced the panel to the character and charms of hybrid grapes, including Vidal Blanc, Traminette, Cayuga, Vignoles, Chambourcin, and Steuben. Winemakers from across the state — joining both virtually and in-person — introduced their creations, telling the tasters what they should look for with each varietal.

It was a sophisticated group, and the lively discussion touched on topics such as the age of the vines, residual sugar, hybrid parentage, yeast strains, and farming practices. Something that came up again and again is the idea that the only thing holding these grapes back is a lack of name recognition. Sommeliers are on the front lines of that battle.

“For me, personally, this tasting really opened my eyes up to the quality of wine that these hybrid grapes are producing,” says Zocollilo. “I would often in the past be stuck on my soapbox about only selling vinifera and not including hybrids on wine lists at the restaurant due to the fact that they don’t have consumer name recognition. But I sell obscure vinifera varietals such as Trousseau and Picpoul on a regular basis — the grapes and wine are amazing even if they were not well known.”

Alexandra Cherniavsky, Advanced Sommelier from Philadelphia also attended the tasting.

“I came away from the experience with a greater knowledge of hybrids and how they fit into the world of Pennsylvania wine, but I also learned that there is still a ton about the topic that I don’t know,” she says. “The tasting has only made me hungrier — thirstier? — for more knowledge and tasting experience.”

Like most of the attendees, she has been a judge at the annual Pennsylvania Sommelier Judgment Competition, which has featured exclusively vinifera grapes up to this point. That might change in the future.

“The Pennsylvania Winery Association was proud to bring together sommeliers and Pennsylvania wineries to showcase hybrid wine,” says Trish Brown, marketing committee chair of the PWA and general manager of Paradocx Vineyard. “Hybrid wines thrive in PA and we are excited for the potential for their inclusion into the Sommelier Judgement events in the coming years.”

Overall, the mood around the tasting table was festive, and the participants left armed with new knowledge and significant excitement about the wines.“This tasting definitely gave me the opportunity to taste and learn about some grapes that I would have no problem adding to any program that I’m in charge of,” says Zocollilo. “These wines show great complexity and quality, and are a testament to the PA wine scene.”