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 Livermore. 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.