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Winemaking in France is believed to date back at least 2,600 years to the ­founding of Massilia, the city now known as Marseille. So it’s logical to think that Cabernet Sauvignon, one of the most important wine grape varieties in France’s Bordeaux region and the world, would also have an equally impressive, ancient lineage.

Because of its name (the French word sauvage means wild), some thought it was a wild Vitis vinifera vine native to France. It’s been rumored to be the Biturica grape used to make ancient Roman wine ­referenced by Pliny the Elder, perhaps because the grape was also known as Petite Vidure or Bidure, which was thought to be a corruption of Biturica. It’s also been thought to be related to Carmenere, a variety once known as Grand Vidure. Some even believed the variety originated in Spain.

But a team of researchers at the University of California, Davis, led by Dr. Carole Meredith, discovered the parents of Cabernet Sauvignon in the mid 1990s by using DNA testing. The team determined that ­Cabernet Sauvignon was a cross between Cabernet Franc, a red varietal, and Sauvignon Blanc, a white.

The UC researchers also believed that the crossing probably occurred in the early 1600s. Written records from two French barons mentioned that they changed their vineyards to Cabernet Sauvignon in the 1700s.

In History of Cabernet Sauvignon, written by Jeanne Grunert for the Web site wine.lovetoknow.com, Grunert revealed that most modern-day Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards are believed to descend from the ­original French vineyard at Château Mouton.

“The speculation is that a wild grape crossed with cultivated grapes, or that the two strains of grapes crossed accidentally, producing a hardy, disease-resistant grapevine that produced excellent, deep purple grapes suited for winemaking,” she writes.

Worldwide importance

The red Cabernet Sauvignon grape has become an important variety globally and is the second most planted variety in the world, behind ­Merlot. France is the leading producer, with the United States the third largest producer.

Cabernet Sauvignon is grown in nearly every major wine-producing region in the world, from cool areas like Canada’s Okanagan Valley in British Columbia to warm regions like Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley. The grape, known by some as the king of wine grapes, has gained ­prominence in Old and New World wine countries, from Europe to Chile, South Africa, and  Australia.

It’s the most widely planted grape in California—estimated at more than 77,000 acres in 2010. In Washington, the most recent acreage survey shows that the variety has overtaken Chardonnay to become the most popular grape planted. More than 10,300 acres are planted in Washington.

Cabernet Sauvignon is a late bloomer, both in terms of budbreak and maturity. In warm regions, where sunshine and dry weather are the norm during harvest, such as Washington State and ­California, the crop can ripen fully and be suitable for a varietal wine. In cooler regions, like Bordeaux, where the weather is less predictable, grapes picked on the early side are often blended with other red varietals.

—M. Hansen

Sources include: National Grape Registry (www.ngr.ucdavis.edu); California Wine Institute (www.wineinstitute.org); and Cabernet Sauvignon by Jane Anson (www.newbordeaux.com).