Cabernet Sauvignon – Which clone is that? Or a possible riposte to terroir.

I think I believe in terroir, I do.  Wines that taste of a place.  An identification with stones, earth, soil, salty or foreign winds, fog and weather that all play their role in maintaining and augmenting this belief.  Or care free holidays.  But, for my sins, I am also somewhat rational, and wonder, and perhaps sometimes fear, that what I think is terroir might be explained by something more banal.  A consistently good winemaker perhaps.  Or some particularly smart viticulture.  Or maybe the grapes themselves are behind it all.  And this latter point gave me the idea for this article.  And since I happen to like cabernet sauvignon, the somewhat less travelled path of which clones are used by some of my favourite Australian cabernet producers beckoned.  Here I should note that I am indebted to the wineries mentioned for taking the time to answer my silly questions.

First, let’s start with something really obvious, namely what’s a clone?  According to The Oxford Companion to Wine (3rd Ed, 2006) (“Oxford Companion”), a clone “in a viticultural context is a single vine or a population of vines all derived by vegetative propagation from cuttings or buds from a single ‘mother vine’ by deliberate clonal selection”.  So think plant cuttings, rather than seeds.

What then cabernet sauvignon clones are out there?  Romance and clonal identification of grape varieties appear not to be correlated.  Though more than a couple of pinot noir drinkers will know off-hand whether the MV6 or other clone is in use, a similar appetite for alphanumerics is not something that I have yet detected in those who enjoy cabernet.  The main protagonists in the cabernet world appear to be the unhappily named C125, CW44, FPS12, G9V3, LC84, LC10, LC14, PDFS, Q390-05, R2V11, SA124, SA125, SA126, Reynella Selection and WA Cape Selection.  And please don’t take this as an implied advocacy for one grape variety over another.  My taste buds prefer the democracy of not being required to choose.

So, what can we expect from these particular clones?  An article authored by Nick Dry, viticulturalist at the Yalumba Nursery entitled “Yalumba Nursery: The Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon Clonal Trial” published in the May/June 2011 issue of the Wine and Viticulture Journal (and kindly brought to my attention by Nick) provides guidance on more than of a few of these:

·         CW44 is the first “Coonawarra clone”  and was selected from the Richardson’s block by the Department of Agriculture and released in 1980.  It is said to be a moderate yielding clone that produces good fruit flavours;

·         the FPS12 was imported in 1991 from Foundation Plant Services in California, via Chile in 1971 and prior to that a selection from Bordeaux in the 1880s.

·         G9V3 is from the Foundation Plant Services in California;

·         PDFS is the “Plants de France Selection” from Michel Colomb in 2011.  This is said to produce moderate yields with medium sized berries.  A trial in Coonawarra in 2007 suggested it to have vigour, capsicum like flavours and quite good tannin ripeness but also quite acidic;

·         the Q390-05 was imported from the Centre for Plant Health in Sidney, British Columbia Canada and arrived in Canada from a private source in France.   A trial in Coonawarra in 2007 suggested it to have low vigour, small bunches, good tannin and flavour ripeness, and good maturity of flavour and tannin for its baume;

·         SA125 was selected from the Dorrien Vineyard in the Barossa Valley and is widely planted in South Australia.  It is described as a low yielding, early ripening clone that produces wines with good intensity and ripe tannins.  SA126 was also selected from the Dorrien Vineyard;

·         the Reynella selection is a mass selection traceable to the Reynella vineyard in McLaren Vale planted in the 1840s.  It is generally low yielding, but can produce inconsistent yields from season to season and performs better in warmer years.  “Mass selection” according to the Oxford Companion means “when many vines are selected to provide budwood” and “the identity of the individual vines is not maintained”.  Logically, it is therefore a cost effective means of propagation; and

·         the WA Cape Selection is a selection of 21 vines at Houghtons in the late 1960s originally sourced from selections from South Africa more than 100 years ago.  A trial in Coonawarra in 2007 suggested more acid than tannin, good growth habit and low vigour. 

And finally, and perhaps most importantly from a wine consumer's perspective, who says they use what?  Here are some anecdotal insights:

·         Tahbilk suggest that plantings in the 1980’s were all G9V3 but other earlier and later plantings and the source of all planting material are not known.  The peppermint and eucalyptus characters of the G9V3 clone are considered attractive;

·         Balnaves indicate that they have several different clones of cabernet sauvignon but the best results to date seem to be coming from the ‘Reynella Selection’ source of cabernet sauvignon. The selection seems to be less biannual in bearing, seems to cope better with stress and produce complex flavours;

·         over at De Bortoli, all premium cabernet wine is made from SA125.  Depending on the site SA125 tends to have less methoxypyrazine characters (herbaceous, bell pepper aromas) than other clones, but all clones are susceptible to bud mite damage and eutypa symptoms as they age;

·         at Yeringberg, the first cuttings planted were said to be from Great Western, and from the same (unknown) source as that planted at Mount Mary.  A number of years later Yeringberg obtained cuttings from Seville Estate, from clone SA126.  The fruit from both plantings is fermented together;

·         Vasse Felix’s cabernet clones are mainly the Houghton clone, but they do have some SA125 and SA126 planted.  SA125 is said to be low yielding and to have deeper, more blackberry fruits and a tough tannin structure.  SA126 is said to be higher yielding and tends to be a bit more herbaceous and lighter in weight and is not regarded as a preferred clone;

·         at Majella, the first cabernet sauvignon vines were planted in 1970.  There are small plantings of C125, LC84, R2V11 clones, but most of the plantings owe their heritage to the original Majella "selection"; and

·         Yalumba indicate that over the last twenty years they have used most clones, but have had most consistent success with  Reynella and SA125.  Other clones such as CW44 and G9V3 perform better under some seasonal conditions or on different soil types.

This is of course but a snapshot of cabernet sauvignon and the various clones in use around Australia.  And I must admit I found this fun to write.  Clearly, however, many wineries take clonal selection very seriously indeed.  If nothing else, I hope this article might add to a stimulation of thought on how important, or not, factors such as clonal selection might be to the ultimate flavours of wine.   It may be more important than is perhaps sometimes given credit.

See also RM Cirami, MG McCarthy and PR Nicholas, “Clonal selection and evaluation to improve production of Cabernet Sauvignon grapevines in South Australia”, (1993) 33 Australian Journal of Experimental Agriculture 213-20.
Wine Thoughts
September 1, 2011
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