Cab Dore’ Combines Best of Old and New Worlds
Homepage photo: Joseph and Lucian Dressel
When you read all the old grape breeding literature from John Adlum to George Hussmann to U.P. Hedrick to Philip Wagner, the one common theme is the endless search for high quality wine grapes that will grow in the East. Wagner, as the promoter and propagator of the French Hybrids, is really the founder of the modern Eastern wine industry, yet even he states in his books that none of the Hybrids measure up to the best wine grapes of the world.
The reason for this is simple genetics. The American vine parents used by the French to create hybrids were not used as wine grapes in America. The French grapes used as parents were grapes grown for the mass production of low quality bulk wine. No amount of inbreeding could overcome those handicaps.
When we started grape breeding in the late 1990s, the literature almost universally had Cabernet Dore’s parent, Norton, as being a 100% Vitis Aestivalis. (Some still like to claim that Norton is the “All American Wine Grape.”) We, on the other hand, maintained that Norton was 50% Vitis Vinifera and 50% Vitis Cinerea.
We derived that conclusion from reading Thomas Munson who noted that he had never seen an hermaphroditic wild American grape vine; all were either males or females; none had perfect flowers. Munson also noted, during his 50,000 miles of traveling the grape forest primeval in the 19th Century, that he had only once come across a white wild vine out of the tens of thousands that he observed and collected.
Munson noted that one-third of Norton’s seeds came up as white grapes, and it’s obvious that it has perfect flowers, so to us, it had to be half Vinifera.
All of our conclusions were verified when Gerald Dangl at UC Davis, et. al, did extensive DNA research. He also turned up Enfarine’ Noir as a grandparent, so this rather long story is an explanation of where that ancestor of Cabernet Dore’ came from. Incidentally, Enfarine’ Noir seems to be closely related to Gouais Blanc which has turned up as the parent of a host of excellent Vinifera including Chardonnay.
A parentage chart for Cabernet Dore’ appears at the bottom of this article. I also highly recommend Dangl’s article about the origins of the Norton grape. DNA testing is a wonderful thing.
With the Davis Viticultural Research vines, the concept is, “Why not start with the best American wine grape and breed it with the best wine grape in the world, Cabernet Sauvignon?” This was not easy or quick. In the end it involved a lot of luck, but Cabernet Dore’ was one of the happy results.
I am often asked how can one get a white grape out of two black grapes? The answer is, of course, that both Cabernet Sauvignon, and (very likely) Norton, have one white parent each, so it is naturally that some of the offspring would be white. Which brings us to Cabernet Dore’.
Cabernet Dore’ is like the grandchild that turns out to be the spitting image of one of its grandparents, in this case Sauvignon Blanc (I don’t want to digress, but in breeding, the parents are really the conduits through which the genes of the grandparents flow and recombine, which I think is one reason that kids and grandparents seem to often get along better than parents with their own kids.)
Cabernet Dore’s fruit, canes, leaves and growing habits (very upright) are virtually identical to Sauvignon Blanc. The wine itself is like a tamed down Sauvignon Blanc with all of the nice muscat -like characteristics but none in excess.
Fortunately however, Cabernet Dore’ has also inherited the cold resistance and disease resistance of Norton. It grows on its own roots, so it is phylloxera resistant. We have never seen crown gall, even in very poor locations. We have also never seen powdery mildew and only a rare spot of black rot. Under the worst of conditions, when one grower stopped spraying for six weeks during a wet summer we saw some downy mildew, as we also did on Norton. This was quickly stopped when spraying continued.
Cabernet Dore’s upright growth habits make it ideal for VSP trellising. It should be planted 10 feet apart in the rows and 8 to 9 feet apart between vines. It is vigorous, but the growth is not rampant, as can be the case with Norton.
To sum up, what are the most important reasons for growing Cabernet Dore’?
First and foremost is to have healthy, hardy vines. If you don’t start with that, nothing else matters. Next is wine quality. Cabernet Dore’s superior breeding gives its wines the ability to compete with the best of California and Europe.
Like its parent Cabernet Sauvignon, the wine from each vineyard and winery highly reflects the regional differences of terroir and management. A Kentucky Cabernet Dore’ is different from an Arizona Cabernet Dore’, and that’s a great part of the fun of doing this. Each grower and winemaker is in effect crafting his own world-class wine. The chance to do that is why I think most people get into this business in the first place. I think it is one of the finest white wine grapes in the world for dry white wine.
Lucian Dressel is the founder of Davis Viticultural Research in California. Dressel also founded Mount Pleasant Winery in Missouri during the 1960’s and obtained the first approval in the United States for an American Viticultural Area which became known as the Augusta Appellation.
See related story: Dr. Norton Had a Baby and Named Him Crimson Cabernet