Genetic testing is all the rage these days. Up until the 1990’s not even the wine experts knew a thing about the wine grape family tree. Then, a riveting discovery was made by researchers at the University of California’s Davis. Using DNA technology, scientists discovered the beginning elements of this family tree. Now for America’s little secret: all of our famous wine grapes (e.g. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir) are immigrants.
The majority of wine grapes have been found to descend from a handful of ancient varieties. These “founder” ancestors, have cross pollinated in age-old vineyards the to create new varietals. Their children have then gone on to multiple marriages, and created a web of new grand-children. Like a human family tree, the grape family tree is complex and filled with lots of stories. As vineyards centuries ago were planted with a variety of different grapes right up against another, close quarters have created many offspring.
The grape family tree’s secrets are still being investigated by researchers. Here is what is known to date about some of our most common wine grape varieties:
- Pinot Noir: This founding varietal is one of the oldest and one of the primary ancestors for many wine grapes. In fact, the Pinot family tree has 156 different wine grapes. Pinot Noir has a high propensity to mutate. Genetics-wise, Pinot Noir has the same DNA as Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris. Pinot Meunier (used to make Champagne) is another close relative, as is Chardonnay and Gamay.
- Chardonnay: This grape’s heritage is also surprising as it, like Cab Sauv, is due to an accidental crossing of a white with a red grape: the country bumpkin Gouais Blanc with the regal Pinot Noir. DNA experts think the birth of Chardonnay occurred in Burgundy during the Middle Ages.
- Cabernet Sauvignon: This one should knock your socks off. Cab Sauv is a crossing between a white grape and a red grape: Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc. Researchers feel the marriage occurred in France during the 17th century.
- Merlot: This popular varietal is a cousin of Cab Sauv. Merlot’s mother was Cabernet Franc and its father was a centuries-old grape by the name of Magdeleine Noire des Charentes.
DNA fingerprinting is still uncovering many relationships for wine grapes. Perhaps it’s time for a party with the theme of “Who’s your daddy?” Might be fun to taste the parts of a certain grape's family’s tree!