Clonal Paradox

I was struck by the importance of clonal variety by an experience along the lines of Sherlock Holmes’s dog that (didn’t) bark in the night. On a trip to Washington state to visit Cabernet producers, it turned out that virtually all of the state is planted with a single Cabernet Sauvignon clone, #8 (on its own roots, since there is no phylloxera because of the sandy soils, but that’s another story). Clone 8 is essentially the same as clone #7, the Concannon clone, which is common in California.

Elsewhere there may be a focus on clones (such as in Napa) or an indifference to them (such as in Bordeaux), but in either event the vineyards have a wide diversity with regards to origins of plants. Of course, the availability of clones has led to all sorts of dire predictions about homogenization of flavors (more with the increasing dominance of the Dijon clones of Pinot Noir than with Cabernet Sauvignon), but here is an actual example.

So what are the consequences? One noticeable feature of Washington State with regards to Cabernet Sauvignon is that wines blended from different vineyards are more common than single vineyard bottlings. I wonder if this is because the homogeneity of the genetic material limits diversity in the vineyard and drives producers to find it by blending from different sites?

A tasting at Col Solare on Red Mountain, where other clones have been planted as well as the predominant #8, suggested that producers may be missing out by using a singe clone. Barrel samples showed that a blend of clone 8 with clone 21 had Red Mountain’s characteristic strong tannins, clone 6 conveyed its usual more herbal impression, but clone 2 was intense and precise, while clone 10 was delicate and fragrant. As the vines are relatively young  (planted in 2002), it may be that these differences will narrow with age, but I was left wondering whether Red Mountain’s reputation for strong, aggressive, tannins might partly be due to a specific interaction with clone #8.

On the one hand, the prevalence of a single clone allows vineyard differences to be seen directly; on the other, you wonder at the assumption that the same clone fits all sites, in spite of their different exposures, temperatures, etc. With plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon (and also Merlot) dominated by single clones, you might argue that clones play a much smaller part in Washington than elsewhere. Or perhaps considering the lack of diversity this implies, clonal selection plays a much larger role than elsewhere, since the uniformity significantly restricts the potential expression of different sites.





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