Cassiopeia (about $40 a bottle) by winemaker Sean Thackrey, is a six bottle collection designed for a wine tasting party that includes four single clones of pinot noir and two bottles of what those clones taste like when blended together.
What’s a clone? In the world of wine, a clone isn’t a bad thing. It has nothing to do with genes being spliced, or stem cells, or GMOs. In fact, there’s really no mad scientist stuff going on at all.
Unlike in modern science, a clone in the wine world is made through a cutting. Imagine grape vines are like movie stars that are hard to tell apart. One vine might be a Nick Nolte, and the one next to it might be a Gary Busey. If you decide you like Nick Nolte better, you take a cutting. You snip off his fingers and stick them half way into the ground and next season you’ve got ten Nick Nolte vines growing. And like movie stars, there are lots of different grape vines. Some are smooth, some are abrasive; some are rich, while others are there for texture. And naturally the most popular vines are grown and used because of their particular star quality.
In a single bottle you might get a blend of Clooney clone, Aniston clone, De Niro clone and a Streep clone all in different proportions. They’re all movie stars, so the bottle will say movie star on the label, but it doesn’t have to tell you which movie stars are in the mix. The label doesn’t even have to tell you that it’s an ensemble cast. And actually, that’s why Sean Thackrey’s 2010 Cassiopeia six-pack is so interesting: It’s essentially a glimpse into casting.
Most of the time when you buy a bottle of wine that says pinot noir on the label, the wine inside the bottle is a blend of different pinot noir clones. Which is why this six bottle case is so cool. The bottles of pinot noir in the 2010 Cassiopeia set are called Dijon clones, and Dijon clones aren't given names, they're given numbers. In this mix the clones are 114, 115, 667 and 777, and each clone offers something different in color, aroma and fruit profile.
After tasting these clones individually and then all together in the blend it makes you hyper aware of the subtle differences of each clone, and makes you want to inspect other bottles of pinot noir for signs of the clones you’ve just learned.
The Dijon clone 114 for example is a clear, pale ruby tone with light intensity on the nose showing herbal notes mingling with strawberry preserves along with darker earth and a hint of tobacco spice. On the palate there is a surprisingly creamy round texture with layers of raspberry, strawberry hard candies, earth and black pepper rolling into a hauntingly long lingering finish.
Dijon clone 115, on the other hand, while also a light ruby color, has much more earth on the nose than the 114. Rather than red fruits coming to the top, bits of mushroom and soil mingle with the rich aroma of forest. For you avid campers you’ll notice that’s it’s reminiscent of that first moment you wake up and crawl out of your tent to be wrapped in the damp scent of trees that seem to be amplified by morning dew.
On the palate, the wine is a bit more astringent — as well when compared to the 114, with that earthiness following through. It’s more acidic too, brighter and more crisp, and the finish seems to drop off slightly but then comes back with the red berry notes that were previously missing.
Clone 667 is a much darker shade than the 114 and 115, closer to garnet, with rich dark fruit on the nose offering notes of baked strawberry, black plum skin and a hint of anise and other spices. It’s soft with an oily texture while at the same time offering a touch of backbone. Clone 667 also offers a fruit concentration on the mid palate that will remind you of the smell of frozen blueberries. I know that sounds odd, but try it you’ll see what I mean.
Clone 777 is also garnet-colored, like the 667. Aromas of red fruit, spices and preserves waft with rich depth on the nose twisting into notes of cherry blossom and cola. It’s a thick aroma when you compare it to the other three. On the palate it’s soft and silky, but there’s dense structure there too that might even be considered a little bitter by some. Cherry, red plum, cola, mushroom, wet forest floor and cherry fruit tobacco flavors roll together on the palate, and then seem to just sort of fade out, leaving behind a touch of an herbaceous, almost minty or vaporous note.
I only tasted one of the two final blend bottles, and it was as I expected. The color was a deep garnet, like clones 667 and 777, but on the nose there’s a complex note of tobacco and spice, some red fruit, stewed cherries and preserves. On the palate you can actually pick out each clone: the earth and acid of the 115, and fruit from the 114, the black plumb skin from the 667 and the rich complexity from the 777 all rolled into one. But actually being able to taste each clone in the mix was the real excitement.
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Most people taste wine the way a sommelier would, listing notes of descriptors to identify flavors and textures, but this mix will take your tasting to the next level by teaching you how to taste like a winemaker. But more than that, it will ultimately teach you to appreciate the care and craft that defines the difference between wine, and fine wine.
Sean Thackrey's 2010 Cassiopeia Anderson Valley pinot noir single clone mixed six pack is distributed by Springboard Wine Company. Order it at your favorite local wine shop.