12.11.2011

Wine column no. 21: Cabernet Sauvignon had to come from somewhere

California helped make it huge, and all steak did was enhance its likeability.

But Cabernet Sauvignon wasn't always a star. Like all big shots, it had to come from somewhere. And to John E. Bowers and Carole P. Meredith, the chances are very high it was from Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon blanc.

Meredith is a professor emerita from the Department of Viticulture and Enology at the University of California at Davis and also happens to run her own winery, Lagier Meredith Vineyard, with her husband in Napa, Calif. At the time of the publication of their small study, in the journal Nature Genetics in 1997, Bowers was a doctoral candidate in genetics.

We likely won't do the study justice, tasked as we are with explaining complicated DNA fingerprinting techniques in layman's terms. So we'll stay away from Bowers' and Meredith's discussion of the genetics, leaving that to the experts. But here, in a nutshell, is what the duo found after studying 51 grape varieties: First, there's greater than a 10 to the 14th power chance that Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon blanc are the parents of Cabernet Sauvignon if that pairing is being compared to the pairing of two random grape varieties. So betting men take note. Second, when inbreeding occurs -- meaning Cabernet Sauvignon grapes are crossed with other Cabernet Sauvignon grapes -- the cross sometimes produces white berres. That, Meredith and Bowers say, is an indication that Cabernet Sauvignon (a red berry) had a white-berried parent (like Sauvignon blanc). And third, if you're wondering how Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon blanc were able to meet in the first place, that, they say, was just a simple matter of geography. And oh yeah, their romantic interlude likely happened no later than the 17th century in France, because that's the era before the earliest reports of deliberate plant hybridization.

"It is more likely that the cross occurred spontaneously between vines in adjacent vineyards or perhaps the same vineyard, as vineyards containing mixtures of red and white cultivars were once common," Bowers and Meredith reasoned.

But science aside, no one really knows what happened between the vines. The more romantic of us may surmise that Cabernet Franc drew Sauvignon blanc in with his mellow style. Then again, Sauvignon blanc isn't the most muted wine out there. It's easy to imagine that this subdued grape was enchanted by Sauvignon blanc's liveliness, her ability to make even winter seem like summer again.

So this is why we're not going to talk about Cabernet Sauvignon, the wine world's Superman. Instead, we're dedicating this column to the grape varieties that, at least one study shows, could largely claim credit for his success.

If you want a wine that manages to be rather humble and controlled, a Cabernet Franc might be it. Take Steele Wines' 2007 from Lake County, Calif., that's sold for under $20 at Winetree on Washington Avenue. This wine won't muscle you to the floor, but it's got enough structure and spunk to keep you from even thinking about dumping your glass. Just breathe in this 2007's round red fruits, and then take a sip. You'll find it's smooth, earthy, light yet still full of body: The perfect wine to relax to, or to pair with chicken or fish. 13.5 percent alcohol.

Here's what we'd describe as a good food wine: The 2007 Sauvion Chinon, about $18 at Winetree, went well with an oven-poached salmon with lemons, shallots, peppercorns, chicken stock and parsley. This smooth, not-very-acidic Frenchman from the Loire Valley was definitely grassy. 12.5 percent alcohol.

Then there are the versions of Cabernet Franc that are a bit more, umm, difficult. We had the 2009 Reserve de Vignerons Saumur, from the Loire Valley in France, last year. Our first impression was how much it tasted like red berries, black pepper and green peppers. The green pepper is an imperfection, according to several wine purveyors we've talked to. Press them a bit more, and they'll tell you it's because the Cabernet Franc grapes weren't ripe enough and were harvested too early. Others say it's because stems were included in the grape crushing process. No one we've talked to about this subject knows for sure. But it could be why Cabernet Franc has never hit the big time and is instead considered a good wingman. Cabernet Franc, for instance, is often blended with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot because it typically has lower tannins (which produce that drying feeling in your mouth) and can be fruity.

Sauvignon blanc, however, is quite the star. Greg can't really stand it, which is why we don't have it that often unless it's part of a blend. But I happen to like this light, airy and flexible wine varietal, which goes just as well with chicken and fish as it does with goat cheese and salad.

There are lots of New Zealand styles of Sauvignon Blanc available in Indiana. The 2008 Kim Crawford, I thought, tasted of honey and freshly cut grass. We found that at Big Red Liquors in Bloomington, Ind., for about $18. Then there's the 2007 Spy Valley, which I thought was both fruity and crisp. Schnucks on North Green River had that for about $13.50. Both were 13 percent alcohol.

But France also produces a Sancerre, which is a style of Sauvignon Blanc. We've had the 2007 Pascal Jolivet Sancerre from Winetree for about $27. Greg got deluged with grapefruit right away, but I liked how it tasted of green apples and lemon and was crisp and light. I liked this wine better younger, too, when it was more chalky. 12.5 percent alcohol.

Meanwhile, we may never know the exact details of the relationship between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon blanc that produced one of the most famous red wines in the world. Under the sunset, or in the quiet passion of darkness, two disparate vines united to create an entirely new grape variety. And to that love, we raise three glasses: One filled with Cabernet Franc, another with Sauvignon blanc, and the last teeming with Cabernet Sauvignon. It's our way of honoring both the old and the new, with a toast to all three.

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