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by Fred McMillin
for April 5, 2001


In France...

Did Caesar Like The Cabernet?



Between 58 and 50 B.C., Gaius Julius Caesar established Roman rule over all of the lands of modern France. Was Cabernet Sauvignon being grown then? If so, what did Caesar think of it? (We know he paid attention to wine quality. For example, he praised the red wine of Italy's Piedmont district.)


Cabernet in 50 B.C.?

Pliny the Elder tells us of a divine vine of southwestern France which he called "Biturigiaca," named after the local Gallic tribe Bituriges Ubriacai. However, Biturigiaca not being a name that would launch a thousand cases, in time the vine became known as "vitis dura" (hard vine), a reference to the hard wood of the vine, a characteristic of Cabernet Sauvignon. Later, "vitis dura" became "vidure." Vidure is the name used for Cabernet Sauvignon in some parts of Bordeaux, even as we speak.

Hence, it looks like Cabernet and Caesar were around at the same time...but wait!


Dr. Meredith's Monkey Wrench

In 1997 at the University of California—Davis, Professor Carole Meredith and graduate student John Bowers were grinding up grape leaves and checking DNA patterns, searching for the origins of California's Zinfandel. Unexpectedly, they found another relationship...Cabernet Sauvignon's parents were two other well-known Bordeaux varieties, the red Cabernet Franc and the white-wine grape, Sauvignon Blanc. Further exploration led to the conclusion that the hybrid has existed less than six centuries. Caesar and Cabernet never met!

(Perhaps Pliny's grape was the precursor of Cabernet Franc?) OK, so Cab is not one of the oldest wine grapes, but it is the world's Best Wine Grape. My panel tastes hundreds of them every year, and here are their recent favorites.


Cabernets That Taste Best Right Now

Best Buys

2nd—Rio de Plata by Etchart, Mendoza, Argentina, 1999, $7. Argentina Cabs are moving from rustic to refined fast, and this is a good example. Contact—VB Group, phone (973) 857-6606, FX (973)857-6193.

1st—Stone Creek, California, 1996, $7. This bottle spent a couple of years in my cellar and it improved noticeably. Best Buy Cab in the last 18 months. Contact—John Garaventa, ph. (707) 833-4455, FX (707)833-1355.


Best Wines

Tom Burgess

Tom Burgess

Monte Rosso Vineyard

Monte Rosso Vineyard

Very Good
5th—Gundlach-Bundschu Rhinefarm Vineyards, Sonoma Valley, 1997, $26. Cabernet likes more heat than Chardonnay or Pinot Noir, so it's small, slow-ripening grapes can develop full flavors. 1997 was very warm in this historic (1858) vineyard, and you can taste it. Ph. (707) 938-5277, FAX (707) 938-9460.

4th—Burgess, Napa Valley, 1996, $26. Tom Burgess, pictured, has a fine "Library Release" program that gives the consumer an opportunity to buy their older Cabs that have been aged under ideal conditions. This '96 is a great example. Ph. (707) 963-4766, FAX (707) 963-8774.

3rd—Beaulieu "Tapestry" Reserve (75% Cab), Napa Valley, 1997, $40. Reserve-level Beaulieu Cabernet Sauvignon probably were the most important wines of the 20th century in California...make that, in the entire Western Hemisphere. See the Postscript. Ph. (707) 963-5270, FAX (707) 963-5920.


2nd—Louis M. Martini, Sonoma Valley, Monte Rosso Vineyard, 1996, $35. Back in 1936, new Napa Valley vintner Louis M. Martini,(1887-1974) found in the Sonoma Valley at 1,000 ft. elevation a 250-acre vineyard he named Monte Rosso (red mountain). It's become his most famous vineyard, and this bottle showed my panel why. Ph. (707) 963-2736, FAX (707) 963-8750.

1st—Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, Napa Valley, Fay Vineyard, 1997, $100. Nirvana! (Makes an exceptional gift.) Ph. (707) 944-2020, FAX (707) 257-7501



Back to those Beaulieu Reserve Cabernets, they were guided to the top by the revered André Tchelistcheff, starting in 1937 and ending with his semi-retirement in 1973. Exactly seven years ago on this date, April 5, he left us for that great vineyard in the sky. (For more about this monumental winemaker, see the April 5, 2000 WineDay, "André Remembered."


About the Writer

Fred McMillin, a veteran wine writer, has taught wine history for 30 years on three continents. In 1995, the Academy of Wine Communications honored Fred with one of only 22 Certificates of Commendation awarded to American wine writers. For information about the wine courses he teaches every month at either San Francisco State University or San Francisco City College (Fort Mason Division), please fax him at (415) 567-4468.



This page created April 2001