A Summary Discussion Involving Malbec Clones Throughout Southern Oregon

In winemaking circles one frequently hears talk about newly introduced clones of familiar varietals, and how vineyards are either being replanted or grafted over to the new and improved scion. The list of recent favorites ranges from Dijon clones of Chardonnay and secret-agent sounding Pinot noir clones 777 or 115 to Tempranillo’s notorious and dizzying array of clones each masquerading under a multitude of synonyms. Advances in the wine industry are always exciting (to some of us) and seem to be forever offering new opportunities for improving whatever’s in the barrel or tank. While there is no question that the choice of clone has an effect on eventual wine style, it is important, as always, to stay focused on the long view, and to work hard at uncovering the best attributes of the fruit at hand before being seduced by promises from the newcomer.

What is this attack of the clones? For starters, these are not clones in the true sense of the word. Even though grapevines are propagated through cuttings, occasional natural mutations can result in slight deviations from the prescribed genetic code, which, if the variation is pronounced enough, can lead one grapevine to exhibit different characteristics than its neighbor. If the variation is considerable, one can even have such leaps as Pinot noir to Pinot blanc, defining a whole new cultivar within the species vitis vinifera. For those variations that are more subtle, one can see variants within a varietal which might exhibit, for example, earlier ripening, higher yields, smaller berries, or even a definable change in flavor profile. Over the years, attentive vineyard managers have spotted these differences and, by selecting cuttings for new vines from these particular plants they have discovered, in some instances, many dozens of different clones of the same varietal. To the winegrower, it seems as though there are more every day.

In Southern Oregon, Malbec has recently begun to achieve some success, but the question stands as to what role the clone has played to this point. Malbec is a varietal generally associated with the southwest of France, where it is a minor blending component in some of Bordeaux’s great vineyards. Not far from Bordeaux it emerges as the dominant varietal in the “black wines of Cahors”. It has also gained esteem with South American bottlings predominantly from Argentina, where the Mendoza region is renowned for coaxing world-class quality from this previously lesser-known grape. Pre-2000 plantings of Malbec in Southern Oregon, what few there were, used the most available clone 04, which is notorious for poor set and variable yields.

One vineyard in the Rogue Valley tried to conquer these tendencies by cordon pruning to even out set and yield. The vines complied, for one year, then rebelled with a subsequent meager vintage of highly variable clusters. A switch to cane pruning, such as is most often practiced with Pinot noir, yielded good results – but only for a while. Another vineyard suffered through several years running while the vines seemed to want to do nothing but produce vegetative growth with virtually no fruit. An aggressive shift to quadrilateral cane pruning for up to 50 buds per vine brought the vines into balance and eventually yielded substantial improvement in wine quality. A third long-time grower simply tore out the Malbec entirely. It is no wonder that, as interest in the potential quality of Malbec increased, spurred by the experience of those occasional splendid vintages, the promise of a new clone free of such difficulties was received well. For more details please visit these sites:- https://www.shop-swimmingpool.at/

FPS Clone 09, the purported saving grace for growers of Malbec, has had a successful start, showing none of the exasperating characteristics of its predecessor. Reliable yields, now sometimes excessive enough to require substantial crop thinning to maintain wine quality, are the norm, and cluster set is even. Initial wine quality has been very good, albeit from predominantly young vines. The judgment, it would seem, is in.

It is, however, essential to realize that there are more powerful determinants of a wine’s character than clone. The varietal itself, combined with the site on which it is grown and the vagaries of the vintage, account for the preponderance of a wine’s style. Most winemakers would certainly downplay even their own influence in the face of these elements. Here the value of perseverance cannot be underestimated. It would be an easy mistake to rush to judgment on a varietal and clone such as Malbec 04 based on a number of situations in which it has performed poorly. Yet at least one of the Rogue Valley viticulturalists noted above has managed to coax his clone 04 into producing some of the finest grapes in his vineyard, giving an adjacent block of the newer clone 09 Malbec some real competition.

Certainly some clones of Malbec – and there are several more than just the two discussed here – will prove to outperform others in the ultimate category of wine quality, for some vineyards and for certain wine styles. There is also little doubt that rootstock plays a critical role in the performance of any vine, and that no real examination of Malbec clonal characteristics is complete without an understanding of rootstock effect. The real lesson here is to stay focused on the things that historically yield wines of superior quality. As much as clones do have an impact on wine character, the vigneron would be wise to avoid placing too much faith in a particular clone, and to remain attentive to those vineyard practices through which the best nature of the given clone may be expressed.


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