Syrah-ously: What’s the deal with China’s Cabernet Gernsicht?

chateau hansen wuhai inner mongolia cabernet gernischt china
Hey, you grapes, in the bottle on the left, identify yourselves!


By Jim Boyce

The origins of the grape called Cabernet Gernischt — closely associated with and widely used in China — has been a topic much pondered. Is it actually Cabernet Franc? Or Carmenere? Or a cross of two grapes? Did the Austrian von Babo, among the first flying sailing winemakers in China, bring it in his trunk 100 years ago to use at pioneering operation Changyu? (To be fair, he originally came as Austrian consul.)

These days, numerous people confidently claim this grape is Carmenere on the strength of an entry in “Wine Grapes” by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and Jose Vouillamoz. Others disagree, notably Bruno Paumard, winemaker at Inner Mongolia’s Chateau Hansen.

First, the relevant excerpt from “Wine Grapes” (my highlights):

“In China, the true identity of Cabernet Gernischt has long been debated, and it has been described as:

– a cross between Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc brought to Changyu (or Zhangyu) Winery in China at the time of, or shortly after, the founding of the winery in 1892
Cabernet Franc introduced to China by Changyu Winery in 1892, which would be consistent with the name of this variety being a misspelling of Cabernet gemischt, German for ‘mixed Cabernet‘, referring to the initial mixture of imported cuttings (Luo 1999)
– a cross developed in 1931 by Changyu Winery from newly introduced and undisclosed varieties from Europe (Zhengping 2011)
– the French variety Carmenere, introduced as “mixed Cabernet” for the same reasons as above (Freeman 2000; Pszczolkowski 2004).

Some ampelographic and molecular studies in China suggested that Cabernet Gernischt is identical to Cabernet Franc (Yin et al. 1998; Song et al. 2005), while another recently suggested that it is identical to Carmenere (Li et al. 2008). DNA profiling of genuine samples of Cabernet Gernischt from the Changyu Winery definitely shows that it is identical to Carmenere (Vouillamoz).

The name Cabernet Gemischt, of which Cabernet Gernischt is said to be a misspelling, is often believed to correspond to an old, extinct European grape variety, possibly an ancestor of Cabernet Franc. This is not verified in any ampelographic or viticultural text in Europe, where the words ‘Cabernet, gemischt’ were used only in relation to oenological analyses of wines that were a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. In China, this variety is also widely called Cabernet Shelongzhu, literally ‘Cabernet snake pearl‘, an alternative name chosen by Changyu Winery because it was easier to pronounce, at least for Chinese speakers.

Robinson also wrote on her site, “Our co-author of Wine Grapes, José Vouillamoz, managed to get samples of this variety from China’s biggest winery Changyu to analyse their DNA and established that Cabernet Gernischt is in fact Carmenère”.

There you go.

So, what does Paumard have to say?

It’s definitely not Carmenere“, says he. “It’s a little spicy, it has different leaves, a different taste.”

What about Cabernet Franc? “I worked in the Loire Valley and it isn’t Cabernet Franc either,” he says.

So, what is it?

“My own idea is that it is a kind of Syrah but has mutated over 100 years [and is now hard to identify].”

How to reconcile his opinion and the excerpt from “Wine Grapes”?

Perhaps with this statement, that I find most compelling, from Paumard: “I have Cabernet Gernischt in Wuhai [in Inner Mongolia], Ningxia and Gansu and they are all different.”

Isn’t it possible more than one grape in China is being called Cabernet Gernischt, especially as Paumard isn’t the only one who has expressed doubts about the “Cabernet Gernischt = Carmenere” formula? Given taste has not been the driving force behind wine production, I can easily see the following exchange happening:

“Hey, what’s that grape called?”

“I don’t know.”

“Must be Cabernet Gernischt.”

Also, the Chinese wine industry hasn’t exactly come about in the most orderly fashion. Those familiar with Ningxia’s vineyards, for instance, say it is hard to find a place where only one variety has been planted. More typical is to find several varieties in the same row. Last week, a former buyer of grapes told me he saw some “pretty wild” lots — a mix of red varieties with, in some cases, a few whites and even table groups thrown in.

Anyway, I’m not taking a position one way or the other, just noting the different perspectives. I particularly find the role of misspellings and mistranslations to be an intriguing part of these types of discussions. I can also see someone, not familiar with German, looking at the “m” in Cabernet Gemischt (“Cabernet mixed” in German) as an “r” plus an “n” and thus getting “gernischt” (see this 2011 post, including comments, by Nick Stephens). Stuff happens. After all, a short time ago Changyu named a winery “Balboa” after their very first sailing winemaker, von “Babo“.

May the magical Gernischt-ery tour continue…

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  1. Jim,

    A very nice and complete article as usual.
    I am discovering the Gerniscght and you know we planted two ha in Laixi.
    I will try to give you some answers…next vinatge, as it’ll be the 1st harvest of our Cabernet Gernischt.
    All the best!

  2. Great article on this ever-lasting miracle! I very much like the idea that actually Gernischt in China could be more than one variety. As a result, a single DNA test will not finish the speculations.

    Here is one additional aspect that always comes to my mind when people say it is so obvious that “Gernischt” comes from misreading “m” for “rn”. Please keep in mind that von Babo did not use the fonts that we are now familiar with on our computers. He probably wrote everything by hand, and the usual handwriting in German speaking countries was quite different at that time. The “r” at that time looked very different from how it looks now, so it would have been unlikely that in 1892 somebody makes this very mistake. But maybe the error happend much later when they already used typewriters. Does anybody know when the name “Gernischt” was used first in history?

    Just a tiny detail, but it adds an interesting twist to the story.

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