Most of us are interested in our own genealogy – especially in a country like South Africa with a diverse society originating from various indigenous populations as well as the Spice Route contributions from Europa and the Far East. Genealogy is, however, also quite an interesting field when it comes to wine varieties! In South Africa, we are very proud of Pinotage, but this unique local cross between Pinot Noir and Hermitage (Cinsault), is but one in a rich family of wine varieties.
Recently Wine Enthusiast asked its Instagram followers to identify the parents of Merlot. While there were a few fun answers like Merlin and Lancelot, I was quite surprised at how many people knew that Merlot is a cross of Cabernet Franc and the once thought to be extinct, Magdelaine Noir des Charentes! Magdeleine Noire des Charentes also crossed with Prunelard to give us Malbec. And keeping it nicely in the family, Cabernet Sauvignon Blanc is a cross of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. Seems the only odd one out in a traditional Bordeaux blend is the “little green one” or Petit Verdot of which the origin is uncertain.
Although single varietal Cabernet Franc is not a wine you have in your glass every day, chances are that you are involved with the Cab Franc family in one way or another as it has fathered not only Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, but also Carménère and Hondaribbi Beltza. Hondaribbi Beltza is exclusively grown in Spain’s Basque region, while Carménère with its Bordeaux ancestry, is today predominantly associated with Chile. (See winefolly.com’s Cabernet Franc family tree)
Wine grape cultivars have been generated by spontaneous or deliberate crosses since its domestication about 6000 years ago. DNA testing now reveals the parentage of our much-loved wines, and it makes for interesting reading. Do read this article on nature.com.
Syrah’s parents are Dureza from Ardèche and Mondeuse Blanche from Savoy in south-eastern France. Sounds very exotic, doesn’t it?! Just like in human families, there can be an obvious resemblance (i.e., Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc), but sometimes, people from the same family can’t be more different – almost like Syrah and Pinot Noir? The fame of the Rhône and Burgundy respectively, Syrah and Pinot Noir do not seem to have a lot in common, but some studies suspect Pinot Noir to be the great-grandparent of Syrah! (Read more)
Chardonnay is from a relationship between the acclaimed Pinot Noir and Gouais Blanc, an almost extinct and poorly regarded European white grape. Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc, however, do not have such a clear ancestry. Sauvignon Blanc’s one parent is an ancient variety, Savagnin, but it is still unclear who the other parent was. Perhaps such wild ways might be part of the reason why Sauvignon Blanc is called Sauvignon Blanc. “Sauvignon” is derived from two French words: sauvage (“wild”) and vigne (“vine”). (Read more) Chenin Blanc is another child of Savagnin and there’s also uncertainty about parent number two, although rumours have it as Sauvignonasse (or Sauvignon vert). Sylvane and Petit Manseng are considered to be the half-brothers or sisters of Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc.
In the same way that you don’t have to know anything about someone’s lineage to like them, you don’t need any knowledge of the genealogy of wine to enjoy it. But, understanding a little of someone/thing’s heritage and background always makes it easier to appreciate their uniqueness and embrace their differences.