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Is it true that Australia’s oldest cabernet sauvignon vines were transplanted from Bordeaux?

The question

I’ve heard that Australia’s oldest cabernet sauvignon vines, those of Penfolds, were transplanted from Bordeaux, but I cannot find supporting information online. Am I wrong?

The answer

It’s a reasonable theory, but, strictly speaking, you’re probably not correct. Let me explain.

France is indeed the cradle of Australia’s two prominent, old-vine red grape varieties, cabernet sauvignon and shiraz. Given that wine grapes are generally propagated with cuttings or by grafting rather than by seed planting, it’s likely that all kinds of European settlers had been stuffing vine material into their luggage and dungarees when they were preparing for the trip Down Under in the 1800s, hoping to get a jump start at agriculture (and drinking). Indeed, it’s well documented that a few pioneers were instrumental in importing a lot of French vines to Australia in the mid- to late-1800s. Among them: James Busby and the English physician Christopher Rawson Penfold (who believed that wine was an antidote to anemia and might assist him in his medical practice). Whether some of Penfold’s vine material was specifically from the region of Bordeaux, however, is another matter, though it’s a strong possibility.

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Here’s the lacuna in your theory, however. The oldest continuously producing cabernet sauvignon vines in Australia, and reputedly the oldest in the world, are found at Penfolds’ Barossa Valley property known as Kalimna Block 42. Those vines, according to the company, were planted in 1888 and are now 130 years old. Unfortunately, their precise parentage remains sketchy. One thing is certain: They were not planted by Christopher Penfold. The good doctor not only died in 1870, but a representative of Penfolds – the current company that bears his name – tells me the firm purchased that property only much later, in the 1940s.

My guess is that Block 42 and many of Australia’s comparably old shiraz vineyards contain vines that are not necessarily direct transoceanic immigrants but rather second-, third- or fourth-generation descendants, propagated in Australia from material that had originally come from France.

E-mail your wine and spirits questions to Beppi Crosariol. Look for answers to select questions to appear in the Wine & Spirits newsletter and on The Globe and Mail website.

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