12.21.2014

Wine column no. 62: It's good to be king. It's also good to be responsible.

Dec. 21, 2014: I’m not one of the fortunate many who call themselves parents. But I know where I came from. And I’d never say I made it completely on my own.

It’s the same for wine. After all, the production and enjoyment of wine is, in most cases, a collaborative process. Both men and women pick the grapes from their vines, stooping over day after day, their hands becoming sticky in the process. Winemakers seek others’ opinions when blending or selecting the best grapes for a vintage. Whole other industries produce the steel vats and wooden barrels that embrace grapes’ juices for months, if not years, at a time.

Bottle labels involve not just art, but theory, economics, passion, and, in the best cases, honesty, too. Salespeople are responsible for the ways and manners in which these wines are sold. And in the end, most drink their wines with others.

Yet to really get at the heart of what makes a wine a wine, you have to understand the grapes that made it possible. Enter Carole P. Meredith. She owns Lagier Meredith Vineyard with her husband in Napa, California. But she is also professor emeritus from the Department of Viticulture and Enology at the University of California at Davis. Her specialty is grape DNA.

Meredith and one of her colleagues, John E. Bowers, proved with greater certainty than ever before that Cabernet Sauvignon is the child of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. Additionally, it’s thanks to Meredith’s research that we know that Syrah is very likely the child of Dureze and Mondeuse Blanche.

Many wine lovers will have heard of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. But fewer people will know Dureze or Mondeuse Blanche, Meredith told the Syrah Producers’ Club in 2004. Mondeuse Blanche is a variety from the Savoie region of France, east of the Rhone. It almost disappeared, she told the group; indeed, with only a little more than 12 acres, it has a very limited cultivation today.

Dureze is not grown today. “The only place you can find it is in a collection, and I would add as an aside that all our work was done with samples taken from the French national variety collection in Montpellier, which is a museum of great varieties,” Meredith said. “Many of them no longer exist today, and had it not been for the foresight of the French researchers about 100 years ago to save these old varieties before they were lost, we would not have been able to do the studies that we have done.”

So aside from great wine, we have here at least two things: French researchers who had faith in science and its ability to reveal what they could not know then but might learn later; and at least one scientist who used the past to solve a mystery that helps others now and in the future.

It’s an amazingly tactical application of science, where DNA is used for the right reasons, in the correct, responsible, and documented ways, to help us all. This isn’t the type of science that, twisted and turned, is transmitted solely by word of mouth. It has roots, and even more stems. It’s when you put them all together that this suddenly becomes clear.

Cabernet Sauvignon grapes dominate the wine world, making up 6.3 percent of the market, according to a team of researchers from the University of Adelaide in South Australia. Interest in Syrah is expanding, too. But as with anything that has the power to influence markets, jobs, and the future of the wine industry, the foundation matters. Some might say it matters more now than ever before.

So which has more sway over Cabernet Sauvignon? Is it Cabernet Franc’s staid insistence on backbone, on substance? Or is it Sauvignon Blanc’s flash, its jarring acidity? Is their union just a dazed accident? Or is this a long, involved love affair, where each draws strength from the other?

I don’t know the answer to these questions. But I do think the best Cabernet Sauvignon wines have no need to dominate the room. They can, and they will, when it benefits as much of the meal as possible. But they don’t flaunt their powers unnecessarily.

The 2009 Venge Silencieux Cabernet Sauvignon will get you to talk, even if it’s in low tones, about the Danish-American family that produces it. Concentrated and smooth, this Californian has red berry and coffee overtones and contains 14.8 percent alcohol. It’s more muted and less intense than other, bigger Cabernet Sauvignon. Purchased at Madeleine’s — A Fusion Restaurant, at a Venge wine dinner.

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