Cabernet Sauvignon's Ancient Roots

Author traces variety to first-century Greece

by Kate Lavin
Cabernet Sauvignon's Ancient Roots
Williamsburg, Va. -- In an addendum to his book, Desert Island Wine, Miles Lambert-Gócs embarks on a journey that follows the Balisca vine from first- century Greece to Albania and ultimately, Western Europe.

Since the book was published in September 2007, the chapter has proven more controversial with members of the agricultural academic community than Lambert-Gócs could have anticipated. The objections are surprising, Lambert-Gócs said, because it was never his intention to dispute other researchers' theories on the origins of Cabernet Sauvignon.

Former UC Davis geneticist Carole Meredith, for example, used DNA typing to identify the parentage of Vitis vinifera including Cabernet Sauvignon. In a 1997 story printed in Chemical & Engineering News, Meredith and James Bowers wrote that the cross between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc "could have occurred no later than the 17th century," but the foundation for Lambert-Gócs' theory of its origins is based on first-century accounts written by Pliny.

"These are not mutually exclusive things," Lambert-Gócs said of the two reports. "She's talking about something that happened in maybe the last few hundred years, whereas I'm talking about something that happened 2,000 years ago, so I don't' see any conflict whatsoever."

The path of Balisca, he said, can be traced from a Greek area in the Northern Peloponnese to Dyracchium (now Durrës), a Greek colony on the coast of Albania, just across the sea from Italy. From there, the nature philosopher Pliny wrote, it was taken to Western Europe and to the Roman and Spanish provinces. In his book, Lambert-Gócs goes on to explain how traits from Balisca--which he said is synonymous with a little-known variety called Black Volitsa--made their way to the Bordeaux region of France.

Sources for the author's addendum were in Greek, Albanian and German. And Lambert-Gócs, a former USDA economist, received some of the letters and articles he used to piece the puzzle together decades apart.

"It just so happened that I had the right combination of interests. It just so happens that I had an article written by a Hungarian guy years before I came across this discovery. It was sitting right there in my files."

For this reason, the author said, he felt compelled to publish his research and hope that a scientist would take an interest in investigating the connections he pieced together through this vine's centuries-long history and his own decades-long study of grapes and wine.

"I think it would be worthwhile for somebody at UC Davis to get in touch with the Greek Wine Institute and pursue this story, however it can be pursued," he said.

Desert Island Wine is published by the Wine Appreciation Guild, at $14.95. For details, visit wineappreciation.com.
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