Send in the Clones

A “clone” refers to a variation of a variety of wine grape that is selected for specific qualities, such as size of fruit, disease resistance, fruit color or aroma, maturation rate, or other characteristic. Clones are not “crosses” or “hybrids” or made in some laboratory. They are naturally occurring variations that are propagated through cuttings. Virtually all grape varieties have clones though few are well known. The “Brunello” clone of Sangiovese from the Montalcino region of Italy is more full bodied than its Chianti counterpart. The “Primativo” clone of Zinfandel ripens earlier than the traditional planting.

Grape ClusterHowever, other than a handful such as these, most wine grape variety clones are not discussed at all. If you go into a winery that specializes in Cabernet Sauvignon, or Syrah there will be little discussion of clonal selection. But, if you go into a winery that specialize in Pinot Noir, and you’ll be regaled with Dijon 114, 115. 667 and 777, plus Pommard 5, Swan, Wadenswil and Martini. Why all the clones? Because Pinot Noir mutates, a lot. Pinot Noir has mutated into Pinot Meunier, Pinot Gris/Grigio, and Pinot Blanc. Pinot Noir clones are so plentiful that they had to start numbering them to keep them straight.

The attributes of some of the most popular clones are:

  • Martini – A long history in California, doing well in Anderson Valley, less well further south. Late ripening, and known for good tannin, and good acidity, but rather dull flavors.
  • Dijon 113 – High yielding and early ripening. Known for elegant aromatics, but rather thin flavors.
  • Dijon 114 – Can be highly variable from year to year. At its best, it produces a very floral, fruit driven, spicy wine.
  • Dijon 115 – The most widely planted of the Dijon clones. Aromas of cherries, leather and roses. Noted for its abundance of fruit flavors. Consistent in all locations. Considered the best overall Dijon clone until the arrival of 943.
  • Dijon 667 – In cool climates it produces a wine known for its dark cherry, pomegranate and cranberry, and aromas of nutmeg and baking spices. However, in warmer climes, the flavors are hard tending towards green apple.
  • Dijon 777 – Thick skin provides intense color and more tannins than other clones, but if not managed properly can lead to inelegant, clumsy wines.
  • Dijon 943 – A relative newcomer (hence the higher number) but it shows great promise as a “stand alone clone”. Small berries in small clusters, yielding dark juice, soft tannins, and aromas that have been described as shouting PINOT. The only “knock” on this clone is that the resultant wine may lack backbone.
  • Pommard 4 – Late ripening, and if managed properly, produces a wine with spicy aromas and velvety textures.
  • Pommard 5 – Small berries in tight clusters resulting firm tannins, deep color, and dark plummy flavors.
  • Swan – First brought to the U.S. by Joseph Swan, it is rumored to have come from Romanee Conti. The resultant wine is described as bright and rich, but lacking in color.
  • Wadenswil 2A – Excellent resistance to mildew and rot, means that it comes through in wet years where others don’t. Lends an elegance to blends.

Given the various clones of Pinot Noir listed (and many more that are not), a Pinot Noir producer could mix and match, depending on the vineyard’s location, put together a winning vineyard. No wonder Pinot Noir has been improving in California and Oregon.

Rock Me Redux

Well lucky, lucky me. After I posted my “Rock Me Baby” blog piece in August 2010, I sent a link to it to Gary Branham, Clay Mauritson and Carol Shelton among others. Clay sent me an invitation to attend the ‘Rockpile Rocks at Rock Wall’ event that September. Most of the wineries that use Rockpile grown grapes were there, along with several growers. There are no wineries actually in the Rockpile AVA. Those wineries that use Rockpile grapes either contract with growers or own vineyard property within the appellation.

I arrived at the Rock Wall winery in Alameda a little early, so I was graciously invited to sit with Shauna Rosenblum, Chelsea Blackburn and the rest of the Rock Wall crew as they finished their lunch, and then walked into the tasting. Well, first I was humbled. Charles Olken, of the Connoisseurs’ Guide to California Wine was there. I had met Charlie before, many years ago. He then introduced me to Steve Heimoff of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Okay, now I feel like a small fish in the big sea of wine writers. These are two guys that know what they are doing.

There were tables laid out in a horseshoe pattern, with one winery per table, so I decided to just make my way around.  The first table was Seghesio where Ted Seghesio was pouring three vintages of Seghesio Rockpile Zinfandel; 2005, 2007 and 2009, the latter being a barrel sample. The second table is J. C. Cellars where Jeff Cohn was pouring two vintages each of his Haley’s Vineyard Syrah and Buffalo Hill Syrah. The third table has Gary Branham pouring the Branham Rockpile Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Senal, a blend of Zinfandel, Cabernet, Petite Sirah and Syrah. Next was Paradise Ridge with a three year vertical of Zinfandel and a three year vertical of Cabernet, along with the afternoon’s only Merlot. I can’t get to the next table yet, as videographers are talking to the father and daughter winemaking team behind Rock Wall, Kent and Shauna Rosenblum. So, I mosey on over to the table that invited me, Mauritson, where Clay Mauritson is pouring the Rockpile Ridge and Cemetery Zinfandels, the Buck Pasture red blend, a Malbec, and a Petite Sirah. Next is the Carol Shelton table where Mitch Mackenzie and Carol Shelton are hosting a ten year vertical of Rockpile Zinfandels, with a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Petite Sirah for good measure. Finally, the host table is vacant enough to try the Rock Wall wines that start with a Chardonnay?! Actually, the Chardonnay isn’t from Rockpile, but Rock Wall is offering it as a palate cleanser and because their only Rockpile wine is barrel samples of their 2009 Zinfandel.

After tasting these wines and talking with the winemakers, I have discovered a few things. Although there are 15,000 acres of land in the Rockpile AVA, only 160 to 170 are planted to grapes. Furthermore, there are only about 50 more acres that can be planted to grapes. The rest isn’t rocky soil, it’s just plain solid rock, or it’s on such a steep slope, you would have to be a mountain goat to tend the grapes. This rocky soil expresses itself in all of the wines made from Rockpile grapes as a mineral flavor that to me is akin to graphite, though I also heard it defined as slate. Whatever it is, it is inescapable and distinctive.

All of Rockpile is at 800 feet or higher, up to 2,100 feet. This means all the vineyards stay above the fog level due to an inversion layer created by nearby Lake Sonoma. You would think that the lack of fog would make Rockpile hotter than nearby Dry Creek, when in fact the opposite is true. The daytime highs are actually 10 to 15 degrees cooler than the Dry Creek valley floor during the growing season due to the 10 to 15 mile-per-hour gusts of wind coming off of the Pacific Ocean. These winds reduce grape size, and create looser grape bunches. The looser grape bunches mean less rot and more even ripening, which is especially important in Zinfandel. The reduced grape size leads to greater skin to juice ratios which means the potential for greater flavor extraction, as well as greater tannin extraction. These tannins give the wines a huge aging potential, and loads of complexity. They can also be rather astringent, especially in wines made from grapes with a lot of tannin anyway. It’s going to tale a long time for the tannins to resolve themselves in most of the Cabernet Sauvignons I tasted, and it may be decades before the Petite Verdot and Petite Sirah wines are fully ready.

There are no old vines in Rockpile, unless you consider teenagers as old. The oldest vineyards in Rockpile were planted in the early nineties by Cathy and Rod Park. The Mauritson family has owned land in Rockpile for generations, but did plant any of the current vineyards there until the late 1990’s. However, most of the Zinfandels I tasted had many characteristics of classic old vine Zins. I believe this is due to the more even ripening, and the fact that the vines are stressed by their surroundings from day one.

Rockpile became designated as an AVA (American Viticultural Area) in 2002. Apparently, there was a delay in the approval of the designation, because the agency that reviews these designation requests thought that the name ‘Rockpile’ was a joke. The AVA got its first major press when the 2003 Rosenblum Rockpile Road Zinfandel, was named one of the top 10 wines of the year by Wine Spectator.

After I concluded the general tasting, there was a session comparing Rockpile Zinfandels of the same vintage by different wineries. The first flight consisted of 2001 and 2002 Carol Shelton and 2001 and 2002 Mauritson Rockpile Ridge. Carol Shelton explained that they have used the same grape source (the vineyard owned by Jack Florence Sr.) for all their Rockpile Zinfandels, but what they call that vineyard has changed. Clay Mauritson added that for this part of the tasting; only Rockpile Ridge was used. I found the 2001 Carol Shelton with soft tannins supporting a blackberry and fig fruit flavor, while the 2001 Mauritson was still firm, and showed more of the characteristic graphite minerality. The 2002 Carol Shelton was plumy, fruit forward and showed great balance, while the 2002 Mauritson was more intense, not as fruit laden, but still very well balanced. I commented that I wish all eight and nine year old Zinfandels showed this much fruit, structure and balance.

2001 Carol Shelton Rocky Reserve Zinfandel $?/ ***+

2001 Mauritson Rockpile Ridge Zinfandel $? / ***+

2002 Carol Shelton Rocky Reserve Zinfandel $? / ****

2002 Mauritson Rockpile Ridge Zinfandel $? / ****+


For the next three flights, there were four Rockpile Zinfandels, each from a different producer: Carol Shelton, Seghesio, Mauritson (Rockpile Ridge offering) and Paradise Ridge. The second flight was 2005. The Carol Shelton was the softest and most balanced, and showed an earthy, mushroom-like undercurrent. The Seghesio was focused and showed the most of the graphite minerality. The Mauritson was the most intense with the blackberry fruit just beginning to peek through the tannins. The Paradise Ridge was the most blackberry flavored of the lot, and had a flavor of black tea as well..

2005 Carol Shelton Rocky Reserve Zinfandel $? / ****+

2005 Seghesio Rockpile Zinfandel $? / ****

2005 Mauritson Rockpile Ridge Zinfandel $? / ****+

2005 Paradise Ridge Rockpile Zinfandel $? / ****


The next flight was my favorite, 2007. I have come to the conclusion that you would have to try awfully hard to make bad wine out of 2007 Rockpile Zinfandel grapes. The Carol Shelton was perfect. Beautifully balanced, with loads of bright berry fruit, enough of the characteristic graphite minerality to know that it was Rockpile, and enough tannin to be confident that it will last seven to ten more years, and still be delicious. The Seghesio was redolent of mixed berries, and of course the inescapable minerality. The Paradise Ridge has that ultra-blackberry fruit flavor and a strong graphite backbone. The Mauritson tasted as if it were a blend of the other three, and that’s a good thing.

2007 Carol Shelton Rocky Reserve Zinfandel $? / *****

2005 Seghesio Rockpile Zinfandel $? / ****+

2005 Mauritson Rockpile Ridge Zinfandel $? / ****+

2005 Paradise Ridge Rockpile Zinfandel $? / ****+


The final flight consisted of 2009 barrel samples. Since the final product is not known, I won’t pretend to pass judgment on any of them, but the distinctions between the four remained. Of the four, Carol Shelton always seems to get as much fruit flavors as the others, but without as much harsh tannins. In each vintage, her wines were the most fruit forward. The Seghesio wines all come from the same two side-by-side vineyards, and almost taste that way. Like the close two-part harmony of the Everly Brothers (ask your parents) the wines taste as though they have a fruit side and a mineral side, singing together. The Mauritson wines always have as much fruit as the Carol Shelton wines, but are always a little more tannic, and more intensity. Clay Mauritson makes Zinfandel for people with wine cellars. The Paradise Ridge Zinfandels all have that blacker-than-black berry fruit and an undercurrent of black tea, which, based on this small sampling, seems to express itself more as the wine ages.

What Wine with Thanksgiving?

Ahhh, Thanksgiving dinner: the turkey, the dressing, the gravy, the sweet potatoes, the cranberries, the green bean casserole, and the pumpkin pie. The question is: “What wine goes with all that?” Well, it’s a tough question to answer. First, let me say that I agree with the “your favorite wine” philosophy. If you really like Cabernet Sauvignon, then go for it. I just don’t think there is anything in the typical Thanksgiving dinner that will enhance the Cabernet, and vice-versa. Second, Thanksgiving is an American holiday, so the wine should come from America too. No, I don’t mean native American grapes (the idea of Concord wine with turkey makes me shudder). I mean European grapes grown in the United States. Wait, some of you readers are saying: “What about Beaujolais Nouveau?” I know that the release of Beaujolais Nouveau seems to coincide with Thanksgiving dinner very nicely, and that it may be one of the few wines that actually complements cranberry sauce, but if it were released a month earlier or a month later, it wouldn’t be on your Thanksgiving wine radar. My third parameter is that big reds are out. That means Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah, Petite Verdot, Meritage, other Bordeaux style blends, and big fat Zinfandels are not good matches (though the leaner, more balanced Zins may have a place).

So, what’s left? Please don’t reach for that Chardonnay just yet. In fact, don’t reach for it at all. Most Chardonnay today is grown in the wrong place so it doesn’t have the acid to balance it with food. Then it is over oaked, and put through full malolactic fermentation, so that it becomes more of a cocktail wine than a food wine. If you are wondering how to tell if the Chardonnay you are buying is grown in the “wrong place”, determine what that producer’s star red wine. If it’s something other than Pinot Noir, chances are great that your Chardonnay is grown in the wrong place. You could serve the Chardonnay as an aperitif, but how about a Methode Champenoise sparking wine? Bubbly is always a good choice for a special occasion, and sparkling wine usually has enough acidity to be served with food. If you plan on a sparkling wine with Thanksgiving dinner, choose one of the toasty – yeasty ones, not the delicate lemony ones.

Believe it or not, there are white wines other than Chardonnay. Sauvignon Blanc may be the right choice for the green bean casserole and the stuffing/dressing if you make yours with oysters. Roussanne or a Roussanne / Marsanne blend would be an excellent pairing with white meat turkey, mashed potatoes, and a stuffing/dressing that is not overwhelming (no oysters, no red meat sausage, and herbs “in check”). Gewurztraminer, either dry or off-dry would work for the same food items. A Semillon, if you can find a good one, might be the best of all, but fewer and fewer producers seem too be making it. Albariño, a Spanish white variety, is becoming popular, and I can imagine the right one being a good choice for Thanksgiving, but I have some research to do; maybe next year.

As for red wine, Pinot Noir is a great choice, and if I were only going to have one wine, this would probably be it. It should be a good Pinot Noir, though, this is no time for a bargain basement wine. Neither Merlot nor Syrah would be my choice, but I can’t fault either. Zinfandel, so long as it’s a balanced one, would be an excellent choice if the stuffing/dressing has nuts or sausage, or if the yams are on the spicy side, rather than of the marshmallow-topped variety. Grenache would also be a fine choice, especially if the turkey is smoked. Sangiovese or Tempranillo may be interesting options. The trouble is many winemakers tend to use too much new oak in the aging process for these wines, or add Cabernet Sauvignon. These winemakers seem to think that both give these wines more “structure”, but ruin them for our purpose. Barbera, because of its natural acidity, would be an interesting selection, but it goes so well with tomato sauced Italian food, that I tend to want to save it for Lasagna.

Then, there is rosé. A dry rosé goes with a myriad of foods, and may be an alternative here. This is especially true if the gravy or potatoes came out a little too salty.

So, where does that leave us? With the turkey breast and potatoes, a white with good body (read as no light bodied wines) and good acidity (read as forget most Chardonnay). With the dark meat and the gravy, I’d go for a Pinot Noir or a Grenache. The stuffing/dressing pairing really depends on what’s included. If oysters or sausage are included, then your choices may be limited, but otherwise, a full bodied white or a light to medium bodied red will work fine. With sweet potatoes or yams, well, if they have marshmallows on top, no wine is ideal, but a medium bodied red won’t be overwhelmed. With a slightly spicier serving (look up Ancho Sweet-Potato purée on, then Zinfandel comes to the fore. With green bean casserole, well, I omit the green bean casserole, because I am not a fan, but if you insist, a Sauvignon Blanc or a Pinot Noir is your best choice. With the cranberries, sparkling wine may be your only reasonable option. If you are limiting yourself to two wines, I’d go with a Pinot Noir and a good sparkler. A Grenache and a Gewurztraminer would be my second choice.

For all the troubles with the main part of the dinner, dessert is easy: late-harvest Gewurztraminer with pumpkin pie or late-harvest Riesling with apple pie. Bon appetite!

Think Pink

A Rosé by any other name would taste as Dry!

When I started drinking wine, Rosé’s were usually in a funny shaped bottle from Portugal, or called “Vin Rosé” and came from one of those Central California wineries whose other choices were “Burgundy”, “Chablis” and “Chianti”. Rosé was always sweet, Chardonnay was always dry, Zinfandel was always red (but could be somewhat sweet and 17% alcohol), and the word “Meritage” had not yet been coined.

Since then, Rosé has gotten much drier, Chardonnay has gotten slightly sweeter, Zinfandel went nearly white, then pink, got sweet, then back to red, turned dry (for the most part) and the alcohol levels went all over the place, and Meritage is both commonplace, and commonly mispronounced (it rhymes with heritage, not garage).

Rosé today is dry, or just slightly off-dry, but because it is bottled at a young age, it has a fresh fruit flavor, that some mistake for sweetness. The great thing about Rosé is that it can be made from virtually any red wine grape. You see, most Rosé is not a blend of red and white wines, but a white wine made from red wine grapes. There are two ways to make red wine grapes into pink wine. In the “Skin Contact” method, you crush the red wine grapes, thereby letting the red-purple skins infuse their color into the clear juice inside. Then you let them sit together for several hours to a few days, depending on the pink-ness (and amount of tannin) desired. Press off the skins and seeds, and treat as a white wine from then on. In the Saignée method, you start making red wine, and then to create a greater skin-to-juice ratio, you bleed off some juice, and make Rosé wine from it. Saignée is the French word for “bleed”. Both methods can make great Rosé, but I have found that the Skin Contact method often has greater success rate, because it is the intent of the winemaker to make a Rosé, rather than a by-product of the red wine making program.

RAP logo

Just as Zinfandel has ZAP, and Syrah and Grenache have the Rhone Rangers, Rosé, too has an advocacy group called RAP. RAP stands for Rosé Avengers and Producers. Last month I went to their 8th annual “Pink Out” at the Butterfly Restaurant. There were over thirty wineries pouring forty wines. No, it’s not on the scale of ZAP, but it is a lot of fun. There were Sparkling Rosés, still Rosés, Rosados, Rosatos and even a Pink Port. Most of the Sparkling Rosés were made from Pinot Noir. Since Pinot Noir is one of the three primary grapes of the Champagne area, this makes a lot of sense. My favorite Sparkling Rosé of the day was from Handley Cellars, from Pinot Noir. As far as the still wines were concerned, the Rosés of primarily Grenache or Sangiovese tended to have more fruit, while remaining dry, crisp, and refreshing than those made from Pinot Noir or Syrah. I particularly liked the CVNE (Cune) Rioja Rosado, a Tempranillo and Garancha (Grenache) blend and the Rosato di Sangiovese from Muscardini Cellars. Virtually all the Rosés were dry, except the Pink Port which the people from Croft insisted on serving over ice, with lemon – an interesting cocktail, but it made it difficult to actually taste the wine. The one other Rosé with sweetness was a Rosé of Merlot from Korbin Kameron, which I can honestly say marked the first time I have ever associated the aroma of bananas with a wine.

Now that the weather is warming up, it is a great time to have some Rosé. What food should you pair with Rosé? Well if red wines go with red meat, and white wine goes with white meat, then pink wine should go with pink meat. Lo and behold, it does. Dry Rosé is terrific with ham, especially Prosciutto, Speck, or Serrano, and it does pretty nicely with sautéed or poached Salmon as well. But try a Rosé with Thai spring rolls or Chinese pot stickers too. So, think pink.