The same is true of wine grapes. Vast, picturesque vineyards might be planted in well-tended rows, but precious few of those grapes owe their existence to human ingenuity. Plenty of hybrids have been developed over the past centuries, but none makes a wine of nuance and complexity equal to the grapes developed over centuries by nature’s wild vicissitudes.
Take Cabernet Sauvignon, for example: California’s most popular red wine grape can produce big, broad, brooding wines full of deep plum and currant flavors supported by firm tannic structure. It pairs wonderfully with red meat, making one drool for lamb or steak.
Now, think of Sauvignon Blanc: A crisp white that often shows tart grapefruit, mineral and grassy flavors as well as mouthwateringly crisp acidity. It pairs with everything from broiled white fish to fried chicken.
The differences between these two grapes are so stark it seems impossible for them to be closely related. But why then does each feature the word “Sauvignon” in its name?
Of course, it’s no coincidence.
“Sauvignon” derives from the French sauvage, meaning “wild,” and these grapes — so different in so many ways — are intimately connected. In a revelation worthy of West Side Story, Cabernet Sauvignon, long conjectured to be one of the Roman Empire’s noble grapes, turns out to be the bastard offspring of two very different parents: Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. The wild hybridization occurred only about four centuries ago, probably in the Bordeaux region of France, where all three varieties are still widely propagated.
How can we know that? Well, the folks who identify and classify grape vines are called ampelographers. Traditionally, they drew their conclusions by comparing the color and shape of leaves, clusters, berries and seeds. Recent advances in genetic testing, however, have revolutionized this process and our understanding of grape varieties.
Ampelography has had other notable successes — for example, illuminating the Croatian origins of the longmysterious Zinfandel grape and recognizing its genetic link to Italy’s Primitivo and Croatia’s Crljenak kastelanski. (Warning: Don’t attempt pronouncing this grape’s name if you’ve been drinking.)
And if you go back far enough into the dim recesses of history, you’ll find that all the major grapes used to make wine belong to the larger family of Vitis vinifera, which literally means vines from which wine is made.
Knowing the wild origins of these now-tamed varieties might not add to your enjoyment of them, but perhaps it can serve as a reminder that all people are part of one great Family. If that’s too much of a stretch (and it certainly is!), then maybe it just helps explain why a great glass of wine can speak so vividly to our wild, inner selves.
CONTACT MICHAEL SCHIAPARELLI: firstname.lastname@example.org