Do Clones Make a Difference?

by Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)

jeff-smThe subject of clones probably isn’t one of the sexiest ones that you can talk about when it comes to wine. Which makes the better wine, Cabernet Sauvignon clone 7 or clone 337?  That certainly is not a subject that you see a lot of ink spilled over in the Spectator or the Advocate.

Clones aren’t something I think the whole lot about, either, but a recent post by Steve Heimoff, which can be found at http://www.steveheimoff.com/index.php/2013/02/26/the-chaos-of-clone-theory/, brought this issue to my attention.

The question Heimoff’s post addresses is whether clones really make much of a difference. It pretty much comes to the conclusion that clones aren’t nearly as important as they are sometimes made out to be.

Trying to figure out how important the difference in clones can be is not an easy task.  There so many other variables (climate, rootstock, trellis system, and so on) that effect the ultimate result, i.e., the wine, that you get from particular grapes that isolating the effect of a particular clone is well nigh impossible, at least experimentally. That said, I cannot agree that clones are not that important. I think if you go through the different clones of Pinot Noir, for example, it’s impossible not to conclude that certain clones are vastly different than others.  Notice that I didn’t say better, but different.

I don’t pretend to be an expert on Pinot Noir, since it doesn’t grow well in our climate. However, when I have done tastings of the different clones of Pinot Noir, you could almost see the difference. While I think the same can be said of Cabernet Sauvignon, at least in theory, I don’t think the differences are quite as dramatic, in practice, as they are with Pinot Noir.

Of course when considering whether clone 7 or clone 337 of Cabernet Sauvignon makes the better wine, you immediately run and all kinds of difficulties for the reasons alluded to already. Unless you were to plant the two clones on exactly the same rootstock, train them in exactly the same way, and plant them right next to each other, are the differences really the differences between clones or between some of those other things?  Or maybe there is a difference, but that’s because one clone mates better with one rootstock and another clone mates better with a different rootstock.  Switch rootstocks and you get entirely different results.  So is this experiment, even if you could do it, very conclusive of anything at all?

And even if you were to control for everything else that could affect the quality of the resulting wine, and you were to identify differences between the two, are the differences truly differences in quality, or just differences in preference?  Just as some people prefer Cabernet while other people prefer Pinot Noir, it could be that the difference between two different clones comes down to personal preference.

It is probably also a mistake to compare the wine made from different clones as though those results really did give you a good assessment of that particular clone.  When you create a wine from different varieties, each of those varieties contributes its unique qualities to the final blend. Maybe one variety adds color, but not a lot of flavor; while another variety may add flavor, but be relatively color challenged. I don’t think that, in that context, it would be fair to say that one of those varieties is superior to the other. Each has its only own contribution to make to the final blend.

What applies to a blend of various varieties applies equally to a blend of various clones of the same variety. While there are certain clones that lend themselves more to being a stand-alone, in the sense that they are more enjoyable to drink when unblended, that’s probably not the right way to look at things.

But, all that said, in the end, I do believe clones make a lot of difference. It may not be a difference that the consumer is able to appreciate as he downs his Cabernet, but it is a difference that the winemaker can utilize when it comes to putting together a wine.  Certainly, to the extent that the winemaker can draw upon wines with different qualities, some more or less colorful, some more or less flavorful, some more or less tannic, etc., it gives him a palette to work with that will allow him to come up with a more balanced final blend. And that, I think, is the primary reason why clones do make a difference.

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