Send in the clones: Wine grapes and their offspring

For the average wine drinker, a grape is a grape. That is, if a bottle's label says Pinot Noir, then that's the grape the wine sprang from. 'Nuff said. But geeky swillers know there are laws which allow for minimum percentages of a given grape to be labeled by its variety. For instance, the bottle can read Zinfandel on the label but still have 25 percent Petite Sirah blended into it, with no required mention of the latter. But what most people have not been schooled on is that for almost all grapes, like the clans of West Virginia, there are many different clonal cousins of said grape. So "Cabernet Sauvignon" has a pretty large family and chances are high you'll never know which grape clone(s) got squished into juice and poured into your bottle. Hell, sometimes, especially in an older vineyard, maybe the vineyard manager or winemaker doesn't even know.

There are thousands of clonal differences in each grape variety, which are basically slight mutations in vine's genetic code. Although it might sound like a population experiment gone bad, this is a good thing. Different soil types prefer different clones and produce different flavors. And growers have been nurturing grape clones for centuries... but not by a lab tech with an eye dropper. Nature nurtures first. They occur naturally and spontaneously over time, starting with a single cell and subsequently spreading to take over the whole vine. Pinot Noir is so fragile that it's very prone to mutation and thus why there are so many different baby Pinot offspring running around (Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris are two "oops" babies).

But when grapegrowers talk about clones, they also mean something a bit different. They take a mutated "new" vine – which ideally has an interesting clonal difference (flavor, skin toughness, etc) – and asexually propogate this "mother" vine via cuttings and graftings. Once this happens, that set of genes commonly known as a plant can be grown anywhere someone wants. With luck, the mother vine will not mutate (a constant struggle) and can remain a source of new and ideally improved clones to share with the world. Wineries then name this new entity after themselves.

Likely, you've already tasted the many faces of Pinot Noir but Cabernet Sauvignon is a different story. I recently had the opportunity to taste a "clonal series" of Cabernets from Bell Winery, the current leader of the clones. Anthony Bell brought a special package from his namesake winery, Bell Winery: four different Cabs from one vineyard in Napa Valley. Bell has played with grapes for years, discovering his favorite, Clone 6, in an abandoned vineyard in Amador County. He calls them "heirloom Cabernets." You might think a Cab is a Cab is a Napa Cab but, in this instance, it's like comparing a Red Delicious to a Braeburn apple. Flavor and even harvest dates can differ among clones. But you might ask why California Cabs often have similar taste profiles (I ask myself that all the time) – the majority of California Cabernets are grown using Clone 7 which offers black fruits and what Bell refers to as "bright and sunny" flavors. It's also what's commonly sold at the nurseries where wineries and home winemakers shop.

In our tasting, we tried Bell's Cabernet Sauvignon Clone 4, 6, 7 and 337, all grown in the same vineyard in Rutherford AVA in Napa (what's an AVA?) and from the 2007 vintage. Bell was the first to label by a clonal designation and I reviewed one other winery who decided to go down this road. The differences in the clones weren't as subtle as I thought.

For the comparison, Bell told us the Cabs were treated equally: same winemaking techniques, oak treatment and hangtime on the vines.

Clone 4 offered bright black cherry, herbs and cedar; Clone 6 had some meat on its bones with dark blackberry and a clean linen finish; Clone 7 tasted more like plum and earth and was decidedly higher in tannins; and 337 bursted with light red fruits and saltiness. Initially, the crowd favorites were Clone 4 and 337, while I preferred Clone 6. I thought it had more complexity and creativity. But something strange happened... as the wine mellowed in the glass (or perhaps Anthony Bell won them over to his pet clone's side), people began to talk more about 6. It became prettier and more approachable. And I, of course, was proud of myself for having chosen it first.

As the wine industry experiments a bit more, consumers may see more variety in their wines. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are rife with various clones since they mutate so easily but Cabernet Sauvignon Clone 6 isn't good at self-pollination. That doesn't make it a good candidate for widespread use. But Bell Winery doesn't care and bottles Clone 6 Cabernet that's pricey ($85) but pretty darn tasty.

Bell Winery 2006 Claret Napa Claret, or Bordeaux as it is sometimes called, is a popular name for French red blended wine in England. This is a fantastic melange of Cabernet Sauvignon (77 percent), Syrah (7 percent), Petit Verdot (6 percent), Merlot (5 percent), Cabernet Franc (3 percent) and Malbec (2 percent). A massive, full-bodied wine, it's juicy with blackberry, cherry, menthol, leather, sweet chocolate and spices like cinnamon and nutmeg. Very interesting, old-world-like juice. Sw=2. $25. 4 stars. Available for sale online and at high end retailers.

Other Recommended Wines

Glen Ellen 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon. Yes, really.


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Mar. 1, 2011

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