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03.05.2006

How We Got All These Varietals

cygne_blanc.jpgOnce upon a time, there was an old winemaking family in Australia, whose activity in the wine business stretched back into the late 1800s. Its modern patriarch was Jack Mann, whose career as a winemaker in Australia spanned an amazing 51 vintages. Mann passed away in 1989 at the age of 83, and that same year, a wayward vine sprouted in the corner of the family garden. Recognized as a Cabernet because of its distinct leaf structure, the family let it grow. The vine blossomed and bore fruit just like any other Cabernet Sauvignon with only one major difference. The grapes were white and stayed that way. Whereas most red grape varietals grow green and then turn their particular shade of purple or blue during veraison, this little vine turned a golden yellow, as if it were trying to be a Chardonnay.

When the vine became old enough to bear fruit capable of making wine, the Mann family, as any curious winemakers would, made wine from it -- at first in secret, and then, having propagated the vine with cuttings, publicly at a winery named Port Robe.

Flash forward ten years and this White Cabernet has recently been recognized as a new grape varietal called Cabernet Cygne Blanc and will be sold outside of Australia for the first time, as a number of bottles are heading to the UK (not much, though, as the 2005 production was around 67 cases, though 2006 will be around 1000 as more vines come online)

Now a wine release in the UK normally wouldn't rate as news here on Vinography, as most of my readers are here in the states with me and have no hope of getting their hands on this wine. However, I was struck by this story because it is clearly evidence of just how we got to the place we are now, where we've got something like ten thousand different vine varieties in the world.

Many are the result of deliberate, semi-deliberate, or accidental cross breeding by us humans throughout the last 10,000 years but some are clearly the result of biological accident -- random mutation, recessive genes, whatever. Whenever I think of the evolution of grape varieties I tend to think in much longer time scales and tend to forget that sometimes, things change overnight.

For those (like me) that are curious, the only tasting note I could find for this wine was "rich, with hints of herbaceous character and it is generous in flavor with a long satisfying palate."

Comments (9)

Jack wrote:
03.05.06 at 9:02 PM

First White Zin, then White Merlot, and most recently, White Syrah! These fakes. And now White Cab - but this one is real grape varietal. But, priced at 12 pounds, you have to wonder if it's a curiosity or something enjoyable to drink. Hope some finds its way to the US.

Bradley wrote:
03.06.06 at 7:40 AM

I often wondered about all those little sprouts that emerged from the dirt surrounding the crush pad. Some of them might be the next big thing.

ernie wrote:
03.06.06 at 11:19 AM

Wasn't there a recent DNA analysis that showed that Cabernet Sauvignon derives from a cross of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc? Sounds like this is a recessive sport.

Alder wrote:
03.06.06 at 11:37 AM

Ernie,

Cabernet Sauvignon has long been (since the 18th century) assumed to be a cross between those two grapes, hence the name, but I haven't heard of any recent DNA analysis on that subject.

Alder

03.06.06 at 1:14 PM

Alder, I'm fairly certain that Carole Meredith has confirmed the Cab Franc/Sauvignon parentage based on DNA.

Alder wrote:
03.06.06 at 4:47 PM

Steve,

I figured someone had done it, I guess the operative word was recent. Are you aware of any new findings with regards to this?

tduchesne wrote:
03.06.06 at 5:13 PM

Alder,
Here you go an article from Discovery Channel back in 1997:

http://exn.ca/Templates/printstory.asp?PageName=Discovery&story_id=1997051302

03.07.06 at 2:18 PM

Bradley is right - one of those seedlings around the crush pad could be the next big thing, however, playing the lottery may give better odds! Like the old-timers say: if you want to discover a new grape variety, plant some grape seeds. Reproducing grapes by seeds, or sexual propagation, is what occurred before grapes were domesticated. In the wild a grape variety would only last for the life of a single plant with each new plant having assorted genetic material from both grape parents. The reason we use cuttings (clones), or asexual propagation, to grow grapes is to ensure the survival of known varieties. Actually, pretty much all of the grape varieties we know of today are the results of "biological accidents" that have been discovered and preserved through centuries by propagating cuttings. Grape varieties aren’t evolving.

Also, to continue on a mild pedantic rant, the word “varietal” is misused here – confused with “variety” - as it often is:

va•ri•e•tal adj. Of, indicating, or characterizing a variety, especially a biological variety.
n. A wine made principally from one variety of grape and carrying the name of that grape. (source: The American Heritage Dictionary)

Anyway, thanks for the great story – I’m looking forward to getting my hands on a bottle of Cabernet Cygne Blanc. And with only one producer, there won’t be any doubt about what a varietally typical Cabernet Cygne Blanc is!

Bob wrote:
03.29.06 at 8:00 PM

Port Robe have added tasting notes, for their 2005 vintage, at their website...

http://www.portrobe.com/news.php?newsid=7

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