Are Clones Important for Cabernet Sauvignon?

Seems like a silly question, but I’ve been struck by a great difference when talking with producers of Cabernet about clones compared to my experience with Pinot Noir. It’s a really hot button issue for Pinot, with all extremes of opinion from those who think that the Dijon clones have basically rescued Pinot Noir from failure, to those who believe that their widespread adoption is leading to a homogenization of Pinot typicity that will all but destroy the variety. Opinions are much calmer with Cabernet. Many Bordeaux producers say that they use clones when replanting, but when asked which clones, shrug and say that they can’t remember the numbers. The general impression you get in both Bordeaux and Napa is that clones affect yield more than character. But on my recent visit to Napa, I was able to taste wines specifically vinified from individual clones, and the results were revealing.

The choice of clones in Napa today may be as wide as anywhere in the world. In addition to the new ENTAV clones from France, there is a series of heritage clones. The workhorse clones of Cabernet Sauvignon in California in the 1970s and 1980s were clones 7 (also known as the Concannon or Wente clone) and clone 8, both of which were taken as cuttings from the same vine at the Concannon Vineyard in St. Helena. Clone 6 originated with nineteenth century imports into California from Bordeaux (the Jackson clone, rescued from an abandoned vineyard). Clone 4, the Mendoza clone, which was imported from Argentina. (It was incorrectly labeled as Merlot clone 11 when it arrived!) And there are many others. The best known of the new clones from France is 337, which I rapidly discovered is basically Cabernet’s equivalent to the Dijon clones: it’s reliable, gives reasonable yields of smallish berries, and has fruit-forward flavors.

One of the most knowledgeable people about clones is Anthony Bell, who was in charge of an extensive clonal trial at Beaulieu in the eighties. He told me that out of 14 clones that were tested, those with the greatest Cabernet typicity were #4 and #6. This can be a mixed bag, since not everyone likes the classic typicity, which implies a touch of herbal character. This may be responsible for the recent success of clone 337. “I think it lacks varietal typicity in California – it allows winemakers to create the fruit-driven style of Cabernet that tends to be a favorite of the media,” explained Anthony. “If you want to pick late and make very extracted wines, 337 allows you to do this in spades.” By contrast, clone 6 gives very small straggly bunches, and tends to show more herbal character: Bell picks this last, not so much to increase sugar, as to get to phenolic ripeness. Yields with clone 6 are so pitiful compared to the others that most producers won’t grow it, and certainly it does not seem to be economically advisable.

Bell Wine Cellars makes wine from clones 6, 4, 7, and 337, and a tasting of the separate bottlings gave a fascinating insight. Clone 7 and clone 4 have similar profiles, but on clone 7 you see the fruits first, and this reverses on clone 4 where you see the herbal influence first. The most striking difference is between clone 337, which shows the most lush profile and clone 6, which has the most traditional austerity.

The style at Bell tends to European restraint, so I wondered whether this tends to bring out the differences between the clones more than would be the case of ripeness were pushed to greater extremes. But my next tasting was with Fred Schrader, who produces a series of single vineyard Cabernets from within Beckstoffer’s To Kalon vineyard, three representing individual clones, and one a blend. These are wines made in a rich and powerful style, but the character of vineyard and clone shines clearly through. Clone 337 is the most open and obviously fruit-driven, and clone 4 has more structure. I do not think you could use the phrase “herbal” in conjunction with Schrader wines, but let’s say that the clone 6 had more reserve, more evident structure and longevity, than the others. What about the blend? According to conventional wisdom, it should be more complex than any of the parts. Certainly it was impressive, but it did not strike me as more interesting than clone 6 or clone 4 alone. But it’s early to tell.

There seemed no doubt that, in these two comparisons of wines in very different styles, the clones have different characters. Some of the difference may come from the yields, especially that increase in austerity of clone 6. It would be fascinating to measure levels of pyrazine production by the different clones, since that is the main factor determining perception of herbal character, and see whether that correlates directly with their styles, or perhaps whether it forces different decisions about ripeness that affect perception of style. Of course, it’s entirely another issue whether yet greater complexity would be obtained by sticking to selection massale to propagate a greater variety of vines from the vineyard instead of the restricted selection of one or a few clones.

Bell Wine Cellars Tastings

Clone 7, Napa 2008, 13.9%

Medium to deep purple color. The first expression on the nose shows as black fruits, followed by a subtle touch of herbs and cereal. The palate shows black fruits of damsons and bitter cherries, with tight, elegant lines. Some fine tannins are present on the finish with a faint touch of heat, 90 Drink 2013-2023

Clone 4, Napa, 2008, 14.0%

Medium to deep, ruby to purple color. A herbal touch of tarragon shows on the nose, just ahead of the black fruits of plums and cherries. This has similar components on the nose to clone 7, but they appear in reverse order. The black fruit palate shows more cherries than plums, with very fine grained tannins, and more chocolaty than clone 7. Just a touch more flavor interest and length on the finish here. 91 Drink 2013-2024.

Clone 337, Napa, 2008, 13.8%

Medium to deep, ruby to purple color. Slightly austere, cedary impression to black fruit nose, leading int a touch of chocolate. The fruits are softer and more rounded on the palate, a touch more aromatic, showing more as plums than cherries. Smooth, fine grained tannins coat the palate, where the more opulent character of this clone really comes out, reducing the impression of Cabernet typicity. 90 Drink 2013-2020.

Clone 6, Rutherford, 2008, 13.2%

Herbal impression on the nose is more evident here, just short of showing as bell peppers, with black cherries underneath. Black fruits on the palate are more cherries than plums, a little more loose knit on the palate, with quite soft, ripe, tannins. The impression of Cabernet typicity in the form of those herbal notes is really clear on the nose, but a bit more subdued on the palate, which hasn’t yet really opened out. 91 Drink 2013-2022.

Schrader Cellars Tastings

Napa,  RBS To Kalon Beckstoffer, 2009, 14.5%

This is 100% clone 337, at yields of 3.5 tons/acre.

Perfumed black fruit nose with the perfume intensifying in the glass. You can see the dense black cherry fruits holding back on the palate. Ripe rounded tannins with more than a touch of chocolate on the finish. Yet this is the most open on the palate of the Beckstoffer bottlings. Powerful, with an overall chocolaty impression. 94 Drink 2014-2031.

Napa T6, To Kalon Beckstoffer, 2009, 14.6%

This is 100% clone 6 at yields of only 2 tons/acre.

A touch of perfume on the nose is just a bit less intense than the RBS. Restrained black fruits dominate the palate, showing as chocolate-coated cherries. Ripe tannins are subsumed by the fruits, and are evident only by dryness on the finish. This brooding monster will open slowly and live for ever. It’s nowhere near releasing its full potential yet. 95 Drink 2016-2033

Napa, CCS, To Kalon Beckstoffer, 2009, 14.4%

This comes from clone 4 at 3-4 tons/acre.

There’s an impression of nuts and cereals as well as black fruits on the nose. The black fruits of the palate are quite restrained, held back by the firm, fine-grained tannins. Very long term aging potential. 95 Drink 2015-2033.

Napa, Schrader, To Kalon Beckstoffer, 2009, 14.6%

This is a blend of clones 337 and 4 and 6, at 3-4 tons/acre, but not from the same blocks as the others.

Initial impression on the nose is a chocolate coating to black cherries, and then a faint herbal note develops in the glass. This is more open than CCS but less than 337, chocolaty on the palate with firm tannins drying the finish. Clearly needs a lot more time. 93 Drink 2015-2031.

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11 thoughts on “Are Clones Important for Cabernet Sauvignon?

  1. Between all the chemicals dumped on a vineyard and then into the wine, which impose false structure and manipulate flavor — especially in Napa, there is no way in the world anyone can differentiate clones, especially since they are grated onto different species rootstock.

    • I would encourage you to put some of the Bell clonal bottles next to each other in a blind tasting. You might change your mind. Every time I have a Clone 6 (“Jackson” clone), the difference in flavor is very prominent. It has a *much* stronger herbal character with olive notes and a deep, dark flavor. I just drank a Bell Clone 4 tonight with my mother and 2 others who had never had it before. It really doesn’t taste the same as their blended “Napa Cab” or their Clone 6. Remember that Anthony Bell did blind tastings over a period of years to isolate the clones that were most appealing. Even if I had some reason to think that Bell’s methodology was flawed, which I don’t, my own palate tells me that there is no single “cabernet” flavor across all clones. I can taste clonal differences in chardonnay, as well.

      • Well I pretty much agree, as you can see from the original piece: the clones are distinctly different. Depending on conditions at harvest (i.e. ripeness levels), they all show more or less of traditional Cabernet character, meaning a tendency to herbaceousness. All the same, producers of Cabernet are much less concerned about clonal choice than producers, of say, Pinot Noir. Perhaps the differences between Cabernets become less pronounced at the conditions of greater ripeness that are common today. With regards to Chardonnay, certainly there are clonal differences, as seen for example in trials done at Chalk Hill (at one time there was a comparison bottle set), but Chardonnay is so susceptible to conditions of winemaking that I call it the chameleon grape because you really can do anything you want with it.

  2. Thank you for writing this, but I have to correct you; Concannon and its vineyards are in Livermore, NOT St. Helena!! ;D

      • I think they (clones 7, 8, and 11 are from Concannon), do just fine in Napa. I mean, I’m sure you can make your own conclusion seeing as you’ve tasted yourself!

      • I’m reminded of the fact that none of the clones of Cabernet Sauvignon that are prominent in Bordeaux actually originated in Bordeaux. It just seems that if you were setting out from scratch to develop clones of a variety for an area, it would be logical to start with vines that were doing well in that area.

      • Interesting. Well, who knows what the logic was back then, but I do know that several cuttings of different varietals were taken from France and brought over to Livermore in the 1880s and beyond, and did quite well here, apparently (case in point: the Grand prize at the 1889 Paris Exposition was won by a Sauvignon Blanc grown and made in Livermore, from cuttings taken from Chateau d’Yquem). Maybe Napa wanted to try them, too!

    • Well I hope that comment is based on a large sample from different producers! At least in Napa, it produces a rather lush style, not one that is personally my favorite, since it emphasizes fruit rather than what I think of as typicity, but I view that as a personal preference rather than a comment on quality as such.

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