A Natural History of Cabernet Sauvignon

We’re right in the thick of Celebrate Walla Walla, a weekend event dedicated to Cabernet Sauvignon, one of the world’s most recognized varietals. Tomorrow, Walla Faces is hosting a wine-pairing dinner at our vineyard, overlooking acres of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes that are just beginning to flower. With all the focus on this beloved grape, we decided to take a look at the fascinating history of the Cabernet Sauvignon varietal.

Cab Sauv

How did this grape variety come to be?

All wine grapes are Vitis vinifera, a species of grape that has been harvested since the Neolithic period between 10,000 and 4,500 BC. The exact origin of Cabernet Sauvignon, however, has been the subject of many wine-related rumors. “Sauvignon”, people speculated, sounds remarkably similar to the French word ‘sauvage’, meaning “wild”. This led some people to hypothesize that Cab Sauv may be derived from the wild Vitis vinifera vines that used to grow throughout France. Others hypothesized that the grape was a subset of the ancient Biturica grape, a grape variety that was cultivated in France by the Romans in the first century AD. Cabernet Sauvignon’s name in the 18th century, Petit Bidure, was used to support this claim.

The mystery was finally solved in 1996, when a geneticist from UC Davis named Dr. Carole Meredith provided micro-satellite DNA data determining Cabernet Sauvignon’s true origins: Cabernet Sauvignon was a cross between two other well-known grape varieties: Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc! Her research demonstrated that the crossing likely occurred in the 17th century by mere chance; two adjacent vineyards containing the two parent varieties led to an accidental cross-contamination… creating one of the most popular red wine grapes ever.

From its birthplace in the Bordeaux wine region, the grape spread across Europe and to the New World due to both its hardy nature, with thick skins that can easily withstand mold or frost, and its rich, full-bodied taste.

Currently, Cabernet Sauvignon is cultivated on 262,000 hectares (650,000 acres) every single year. You can find it growing in almost every wine-producing region of the world. Cab Sauv came to Walla Walla in the early 1970s. It now takes up 41% of the planted area.