Most grapes have familiar cousins and second cousins

Steve Delaney
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The DNA-based family tree of wine varietals fascinates me, even though I know it has little or nothing to do with the taste and enjoyment of the product.

I find that seeing the relationships fills in a lot of gaps and offers some explanation for some of the interesting situations in the wine world.

As an example, let’s consider Merlot and Carménère in Chile.

In the 1800s, rich landowners in Chile began importing French vines, mainly from the Bordeaux region, and a few French wine-makers as well. At that time Carménère was a more prominent variety in Bordeaux, and would have been imported with Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and other varieties. Over time, memory of Carménère as a separate varietal faded and it was lumped in with Merlot in the vineyards of Chile.

It was only a few decades ago that it was shown that a lot of what had been known as Merlot in Chile was actually Carménère — the vines and fruit were almost identical. While now rare in its native region, it seemed to be prospering in the conditions of its new home. But why the confusion between Merlot and Carménère?

Just a glance at the Cabernet family tree provides a ready explanation for the confusion as it shows that Merlot and Carménère share a parent, Cabernet Franc, and are therefore half-siblings. It is natural that the two vines have a family resemblance!

Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir are perhaps two of the most famous French varieties. The first tends to make wonderful powerful wines, while the second wonderful elegant wines. Each has its fans (and they certainly share some fans, too). Cab is from Bordeaux, and Pinot is from Burgundy. It is hard to conceive of any relationship between the two other than star status.

The DNA diagrams tell us otherwise.

Follow this chain: Pinot Noir is most likely a parent of the varietal Savagnin which originated in the area of northeast France.

Savagnin is a parent of Sauvignon Blanc which seems to have originated in the valley of the Loire from which it became known to the region of Bordeaux. In Bordeaux, it was crossed with Cabernet Franc to produce Cabernet Sauvignon.

There are six allowed varietals in red Bordeaux: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, Carménère and Petit Verdot. Only Petit Verdot from this list is not related to the other five.

As mentioned above, Cabernet Franc is the parent of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Carménère, each time with a different partner. It turns out that the other parent of Merlot is also a parent of Malbec, neatly tying together the whole group!

If you would like to learn more about such relationships, I highly recommend the book “Wine Grapes” by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz.

My wine of the week was a Malbec from Argentina: Nuscaa 2012 from the Mendoza region (NLC $17.31).

The deep purple wine was bursting with inky fresh fruit aromas accented with some earth and chocolate tones. It was smooth in the mouth with just enough tannic grip. Score: 15/Very Good.

Steve Delaney is a member of the Opimian Society. Email him at

Twitter: @delaneystephen.

Organizations: Opimian Society

Geographic location: Bordeaux, Chile, Burgundy France Loire Argentina

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