Cabernet Sauvignon is so well known in the wine world it is on a first-name basis with most wine enthusiasts. Napa Valley, a wine region also on a first-name basis with many wine enthusiasts, undeniably specializes in Cabernet. And true Napa Cabernet lovers know the vineyards and sub-appellations by heart, but what about Cabernet Sauvignon clones? That’s a less common discussion. If you’re curious to learn, Bell Wine Cellars can acquaint you with the subtleties of Cabernet Sauvignon’s many clones.
Several months ago I participated in a clonal tasting of Cabernet Sauvignon organized by San Francisco Wine School. I attended the tasting free of charge as a member of the wine media. During the tasting we sampled seven single-clone Cabernets made by Bell Wine Cellars. Hillary Cole Director of Sales, and John Hazak Winemaker and General Manager provided Bell’s history and background information about Cabernet clones.
By the time Anthony Bell opened Bell Wine Cellars in Yountville he had gained years of experience with his favorite wine grape — Cabernet Sauvignon. He called South Africa’s Stellenbosch region, famous for its wine farms, home before he left for Bordeaux. His studies continued at UC Davis before moving to Napa in 1979 and becoming Assistant Winemaker and Viticulturist at the highly-regarded Beaulieu Vineyard. While at Beaulieu he made Beaulieu Vineyard’s Clone 6 Cabernet Sauvignon — the first single-vineyard, single-clone Cabernet.
Bell cultivated that interest in Cabernet clones at his own winery after he opened the doors in 1998. According to John Hazak, Anthony’s interest in clones was always been applied to making the best Cabernet possible at Bell Wine Cellars, but clonal research can also help vintners respond to climate change by understanding where individual clones thrive. In addition to their single-vineyard and single-appellation line up, Hillary Cole told us Bell makes the largest portfolio of single-clone Cabernets.
Even though Cabernet Sauvignon clones are genetically identical, they have distinct characteristics in terms of bunch size, shape, vineyard yield and flavor profiles. Heat treatment that prevent viruses can modify a clone’s characteristics as well. Of the many single-clone wines that the winemaking team crafts every vintage, not every one is bottled as such — only those that reflect the clone’s true character are bottles on their own. Vineyard sources vary as well. Each clone does inform the winemaking though (see the 2019 Reserve below, a blend of several clones). Barrel cooperage and toast level are unique for each clone based on their individual characteristics, though aging is similar.
2019 Bell Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon ‘Clone 4’, Rutherford— generous aromas and flavors of dark red fruit, alfalfa hay and cedar with notes of leather and tobacco in the background. Tannins are drying and well integrated with the flavors.
Clone 4 makes a wine with plenty of structure and ageability. It sets a heavy crop with tight bunches and can give a herbal quality. This planting is older and produces a lower yield in the vineyard. Sourced from Mendoza, Argentina. It tastes like Cab.
2020 Bell Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon ‘Clone 7’, Napa Valley — bright red fruit and boysenberries, fleeting dried mint plus earth and coffee. Very fruit-forward with fine, drying tannins and a long finish.
Clone 7 is also known as the Concannon clone, where cuttings of the clone were isolated in Concannon’s Livermore vineyard. The original cuttings came from Montpellier, France and were collected by James Concannon in 1893. Clone 7 produces a generous yield in the vineyard with concentrated dark flavors and some herbal qualities.
2020 Bell Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon ‘Clone 169’, Mount Veeder — less obvious aromas with dark fruit, plums, slate and bigger, firmer tannins with dense ruby color that coats the glass. Very different flavor profile with grippy tannins.
Clone 169 produces smaller, tight clusters with thick skins and yields a dark and brooding wine with firmer tannins. This clone thrives on Mount Veeder and has a bright future according to John.
2020 Bell Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon ‘Clone 191’, Mount Veeder — lots of red and dark fruit with dried mint in a lighter body with abundant acidity and gauzy, drying tannins.
Clone 191 is uncommon — its heat-treated versions 33 and 34 have replaced it. 191 is very low yielding in the Mount Veeder vineyard and struggles with heat and drought. It makes a wine that is big and dark but approachable.
2020 Bell Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon ‘Clone 337’, Rutherford — brighter red and dark fruit and cherries with abundant acidity. Tannins are very gauzy and drying.
Clone 337 can make a complete wine in a good vintage, and the right location, according to both Hillary and John. It shows a beautiful floral character with firm tannins and doesn’t need much wood aging. It is generally released the earliest at Bell.
2020 Bell Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon ‘Clone 338’, Rutherford — dark fruit and juicy berries with significant drying, gauzy tannins. Flavors are complex without tasting overly concentrated.
This is the first (and only) vintage that Bell Wine Cellars and John have made with clone 338. It was only because another winemaker backed out of taking the grapes (due to possibility of smoke taint) that John was able to get the grapes. He thinks this location on the eastern Rutherford Bench is prime for this clone that was isolated in France. He’d love to work with it again.
2019 Bell Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon ‘Clone 6’, Napa Valley — dark fruit and tart red fruit with pencil shavings. Tannins are grippy, but a lovely wine.
Clone 6 produces tiny, wide, very open clusters that result in a very low yield in the vineyard. The small berries have thick skins. The wine has good Cabernet typicity with generous aromatics. Clone 6 is easy ripening, but is disappearing due to its low yield. Clone 6 is Bell’s flagship clone and the clone Anthony liked best. John went on to note clone 6 is “almost guaranteed to make a great wine.”
2019 Bell Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon ‘Reserve’, Napa Valley — dark fruit, cedar, gauzy tannins. Flavors are more complex and the wine has a bit more weight.
The Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon is always a blend of four to five clones. The individual clones vary by vintage. That’s the great thing about a small winery — the wines are unique!
In 2002 Bell Wine Cellars was purchased by Alex Spanos, and his son-in-law, Ron Berberian. In addition to its focus on Cabernet Sauvignon clones, Bell’s small production sets it apart from many Napa Valley wineries.
Bell Wine Cellars offers several unique wine tasting options at the Yountville winery, including single-vineyard and single-clone Cabernet Sauvignon. Sounds like a delicious way to learn more about the subtleties of Cabernet.
The San Francisco Wine School offers a wide range of wine education classes and I’ve taken several over the years. I’ve never been disappointed. Beginning during the COVID pandemic I particularly appreciated the option to take their classes via Zoom, with the wines sent to me. Now I’m happy to be a Zoomie because SFWS isn’t close to my home. If you’re a wine enthusiast you should check out their schedule of classes. Proprietor David Glancy, MS told us SFWS is the largest wine school in the country.