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The chaos of clone theory

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I was pleased to read, in Benjamin Lewin’s magnificent new book, “Claret & Cabs: The Story of Cabernet Sauvignon,” that “in Bordeaux [there is a] general lack of interest in exactly which clone is used.”

That is so different from California, where you’re always hearing about Clone 7, or 4, or 6, or 8, or 29, or 337, or whatever. And it’s not just Cabernet, it’s Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah and just about every other important variety

I formed my initial impressions about clones in the early 1990s, when the new French Pinot Noir clones started coming into widespread use in California. I remember many a conversation with winemakers as they described the differences between the various clones and older selections. As a budding reporter, I listened carefully, trying to learn all I could. I wanted to know if, for example, 777 was better than 115 in Carneros–or if perhaps the situation were reversed in the Russian River Valley. Writers always want neat, tidy conclusions that we can pass along to our readers.

But it was all in vain: there was so much conflicting and competing information, so many different opinions were expressed, so many complicating factors such as rootstocks and different climate and soil conditions, so much absence of scientific certainty, that at some point in the 1990s I gave up trying to understand clones. I was in despair that I would ever be able to write about them without resorting to clichés, second-hand anecdotes or pretend-authority statements that I was just stealing from others [and that others would eventually steal from me]. That has never been my style.

By the turn of the new millennium I was doing research for my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River, and since so much of that had to do with Pinot Noir, I found myself reluctantly plunging back into the chaos of clone theory. I went through more rounds of interviewing, and by that time, access to the Internet additionally expanded the scope of information I had access to. Once again, I found myself in overwhelmed. So much data, so little time to digest it. So, when Tom Dehlinger said to me, “If you have a site that is producing great Pinot Noir, then almost any clone will be successful,” I almost sobbed with relief. At long last, with a single statement, someone smart and respectable had swept away the cobwebs, and given me permission to not be obsessed with clones, the way so many other writers were.

Why are the French so lackadaisical about Cabernet clones when the Californians seem so obsessed by them (or, in Lewin’s words, “Bordeaux’s indifference to clones [versus] Napa’s focus on them”)? Lewin, who’s an M.W., doesn’t explore this fruitful territory, but I will. California viticulture and enology always has been very academically and scientifically oriented, at least, since the modern boutique winery era began. The state has schools like U.C. Davis and Fresno State that long have been heavily involved in the industry, and have had a lock on providing winemaker talent. I’m not sure if there’s an equivalent situation in Bordeaux.

Universities stay in business, of course, only as long as they’re perceived to be adding to the body of knowledge of the academic subjects they specialize in. In Davis’s case, this means making constant, ongoing progress in all their V&E fields, whether it’s plant pathology, soil science, fermentation science or biochemistry. Graduates of these departments arrive at their first jobs heavily educated.

There’s always been some debate in California about whether winemaking is an art or a science. To some extent, this is a silly distraction–it’s both–but the perception is out there that too much technique can cripple the vintner’s creative, artisanal side. For example, when I first met Josh Jensen, at Calera, he told me that when he was advertising for an assistant winemaker, his single qualification was “Must not be a U.C. Davis grad.” I suspect Josh was being wry, but I took his point.

Winemakers in California tend to get very wonky because of the belief that only rigorous scientific research can result in the greatest wines. That is a reasonable point of view, but it also should be pointed out that some pretty great wines were made in Europe for centuries before there were winemaking schools or even a basic understanding of fermentation. If your quest is for ever-greater wines, then when do you stop questing? When do you know that you have a great formula (vineyard, winemaker, grapes, winemaking facility) and so there’s no longer a need to keep on tinkering? When, in other words, do you leave well enough alone? Or is that a dangerous thought–that, somehow, if you stop questing, you’ll lose status and be eclipsed by the competition?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. But the interest in clones in California, versus the apparent lack of interest in them in Bordeaux (assuming Lewin is correct), is interesting. I wonder if it’s just a phase, part of California’s coming of age. What do you think?

  1. There is absolutely no question about CA’s emphasis on “rigorous scientific research.”

    I also suspect if CA also had several time-tested centuries of “appellation/terroir” experience behind it, that the reliance on the scientific method would not be so prevalent.

    Lastly, clonal emphasis, though certainly worthwhile and effective, is also part of the marketing arsenal of differentiating oneself from the dozens of competitors clamoring to achieve subscriber/club waiting lists. Why not do it?

  2. tom, each of your points is completely true! Thanks.

  3. Considering varieties, clones and rootstocks is important from a technical standpoint when planting or re-planting a vineyard in order to avoid obvious mis-matches. We don’t have millennia of grape growing history to fall back on here in the new world to help guide these choices. So, yes – in a sense we are “obsessed” with clones, if by obsessed you mean “necessarily aware of, in the interest of self-preservation.”

    Within that envelope though, I think Tom Dehlinger had it right – you will make a great Pinot from a great Pinot site regardless of which clone is used. The clone or clonal mix becomes part of the site’s definition.

    From my standpoint as a total geek on this stuff, I find the subtle differences of how different clones express themselves on a site to be interesting, but I don’t find them to be the basis for a marketing program. “Interesting” is not often “better.” Over the years I have found that clonal mixes are often more than the sum of their parts – I like them better, anyway.

    So when I am visiting some place and the grower or winemaker tells me something like “we use clones 8 and 337″ what I hear is “we cared enough about what we are doing to pay attention” rather than “our wine is exceptional primo super because we picked these clones.”

  4. Phil Grosse says:

    “If you have a site that is producing great Pinot Noir, then almost any clone will be successful.” Not being a total geek on the subject, I’ll happily take Tom’s word on this. So any clonal selection would be good–but different clonal selections, while still good, would be different from each other, yes? The wine makers I know–mostly in Pinot houses–seem to enjoy coming up with different styles of Pinot. I think that’s one of the fun things about Pinot Noir: There are so many very different wines that share the same name.

  5. Phil: One theory is that increasing the # of clones in the blend increases complexity. Not sure I buy into that.

  6. Was in Napa a couple of years ago and tasted a set of Chardonnays with their winemakers. For three out of the five, (sadly can’t remember which, am on a train, notes are 200 miles away), the winemakers talked about clones, cooperage, time in oak, frequency of stirring, all the winemaking blah blah blah. With the other two (Saintsbury, Hyde de Villaine), it was, ‘we pick the grapes, we make the wine’. These werre the two our group unanimously preferred…. Lots of people know how to make wine. The tricky bit is knowing when to stop.

  7. David Bantly says:

    “Why are the French so lackadaisical about Cabernet clones when the Californians seem so obsessed by them..”

    My reply to this question actually addresses the basis for the core of the article. My take is that the French, who have hundreds of years viticulture experience have discovered what grows best in a given site. We’re still figuring it out. Let’s not forget that we’re two decades removed from St. Georges / AXR1 rootstocks. I see it as we’re discussing a point (clones) which is simply needed as we navigate the next twenty years of California viticulture.

  8. I just read a comment about Pinot Noir from Marimar Torres on another posting of Steve’s and I think it is pertinent here. The fact that she first planted in 1988 and people thought she was a bit nutty planting Pinot in Green Valley that cold bit of southwestern RRV! I’ve been placing here wines on wine lists for so long, that 1988 really came as a surprise, I remember when she planted, but forgot how recent that really is.

    My point: the new world is still figuring it out. Remember Wente Clone in Willamette Valley for Chardonnay… remember when Drouhin came to Willamette for Pinot Noir and his bringing clonal diversity was so key to the evolution of Willamette Pinot from wines with potential and the occasional stunning wine to consistently fine Pinot Noir.

    Clones will be as passe for Willamette, RRV et al as it is for Gevrey in another few hundred years.

  9. Intriguing subject and comments. One thing that I did not see, Pinot has a propensity to mutate. Therefore once planted, a few years into the evolution of the vineyard, a partial clonal change will have occured. Then site specifitisity is dominant….

  10. from a winemaking perspective, i think clones are important. in pinot noir, for example, pommard clones might give you more fruit, while 777 will give you more spice, etc. the way your wine tastes is heavily influenced by the clones you choose

    from a vineyard planting perspective, they seem even more important. the joke in oregon is that everyone will buy 777, because it gives you higher brix and higher yields, so who cares what it tastes like?

    but from a wine drinkers perspsective, clonal variation is rivaled only by soil types as the most boring thing anyone can tell me about. if the most interesting thing about a wine is the clones that are used to make it, i don’t want to hear about it

  11. Stephen Goldman, good point.

  12. I think it would be fine if consumers and wine writers dropped out of the conversation around clones. Go ahead and consider it (as a previous poster put it) as winemaker “blah, blah, blah.” I have heard plenty of B.S. about clones, mostly from people who write about them, as opposed to those who work with them. For instance, one writer insists that the Dijon clones of PN should not be planted in California, claiming they ripen too early in this climate, and says that in the new world they should only be planted in Oregon. In Marimar’s vineyard we have Pommard, Swan, and Dijon 115 growing side by side. They always ripen (at least in my 15 years experience with that vineyard) within a few days of each other, certainly within the same week, and yet the differences in the wines are distinct and profound. Tasters might differ on preference when judging the lots, but no one would say they are the same. OK, no more blah, blah, blah, just leave it to us…

  13. The first and most important question we always ask regarding our wines, (and anyone elses) is: Does it Taste Good?
    I meet a lot of people ITB, who talk a lot about the technical aspects of wines that in the end just don’t taste that good.
    My analogy is that I was a good, if ignorant, musician at one time, until I went to a fancy music school (Berklee) …
    Now, 30 years later, I still can’t pick up instrument without playing scales.

  14. Steve,

    Interesting article, but I don’t understand why you conflate the art vs. science debate with a discussion on clonal variation in grapevines. To me that seemed gratuitous.

    Field selection of plant materials is as French as tart aux pommes (ask Josh Jensen), and I can’t believe they are really as disinterested in what plant material goes into their fields as Lewin seems to think. I think that because we now have the technology to distinguish genetically between plants we’ve selected, and hence can give them names like “Calera” or “115,” makes it seem like a bigger deal. Also, in the US we tend to segregate them in the field by clone (or at least think we are–I wonder how precise the nurseries really are about keeping the plant material segregated), which I don’t think that the French have typically done.

    Of course, everyone is also seeking a magic bullet, but I really don’t think that is a result of the pernicious influence of science. For what it is worth, in my experience at Davis anyway the party line was that site and farming trump clonal variation–in other words, they are saying the same thing that Tom Dehlinger was saying, I think. So, no, the fixation on clonal variation has nothing to do with Davis or Fresno, or art vs. science, I think it has to do with the fact that everyone is trying to make selections that perform the best on their site–just like the French–and why not? Isn’t that what we are supposed to do?

  15. I’ve been lucky enough to travel to Sonoma, the Willamette Valley, and Burgundy to drink pinot noir. Each region is special. It’s the terroir, not the clone that make the difference.

    I like that each region produces unique wines because of it’s terroir, not the clone. Not one region is better then the other. Each is special in its own way.

    When the 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon was produced Warren Winiarski was not focused on what clones of cabernet sauvignon should be used. He was focused on finding the vineyard where he could plant vines that could produce the greatest cabernet sauvignon in the world. Warren tasted wine from multiple terroirs in Napa before deciding on a site. He knew when he found the terroir / vineyard that was special.

    California has producing great wine for a long time but still is young when compared to France. Wines in California are unique and do reflect terroir. My advice to Californian wine makers is to embrace their terroir. Try to make wines that are BALANCED and reflect Califonia terrior. Don’t try and make wines that are “old world”.

  16. Thanks for the kind words about my book. There may be several reasons why clones are viewed as less important in Bordeaux than in Napa. The long history of matching the variety to the terroir might reduce variation and mean that most of the clones will do more or less equally well in Bordeaux. In Napa, planting Cabernet in areas that vary from valley floor to mountain slopes might magnify differences between clones in a way that doesn’t happen on the (relatively) homogeneous gravel soils of Bordeaux. Also, consistent with the whole philosophy of blending, Bordeaux chateaus believe in diversity and rarely let their vineyards be dominated by any one clone. And clonal variation is certainly less with Cabernet than with (say) Pinot Noir, although you do see some demonstration of its reality in places where one clone of Cabernet dominates plantings (such as Washington State or Margaret River), which I discuss later in the book.

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