Talking clonal Cabernet with Schrader Cellars

Top Napa estate Schrader Cellars has championed the use of individual clones of Cabernet Sauvignon in its quest for quality. Tasting through the range with the property’s own Master Sommelier Jason Smith, we explore how these pioneering wines have won the hearts of oenophiles around the world
Talking clonal Cabernet with Schrader Cellars

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Schrader Cellars is one of Napa’s most decorated producers. The estate’s approach of pairing specific clones with the perfect site to produce the ultimate expression of Napa Cabernet has made it a critics’ darling – and the property is behind some of the most coveted fine wines on the market. To date, Schrader has received an astounding 35 100-point scores. 

Schrader's winemaker Thomas Rivers Brown (left), in the vineyard

Schrader Cellers founder Fred Schrader and the estate’s winemaker Thomas Rivers Brown are huge fans of the To Kalon vineyard in Napa’s Oakville and much of the production from Schrader is concentrated on this single site, such is the obsession with the place and conviction in its quality.  

To Kalon is home to some of Napa’s oldest vines and best Cabernet Sauvignon. There are more 100-point wines to originate from this vineyard than any other on the planet and many famous names have built their reputation on it. Schrader bottles different clones of Cabernet Sauvignon from this site, highlighting the nuance and personality that Napa Cabernet can achieve. 

Stylistically, Schrader’s wines are immense, opulent and plushly textured, underpinned by elegant power. Schrader is high-octane Napa at its finest. It is immediately clear tasting through the range that these are precise wines. High alcohol, high levels of oak, high levels of concentration are all potential red flags when it comes to wine faults (these wines being much more volatile), but these Schrader bottlings are as clean as a whistle.  

With a total production of just 2,500 to 4,000 cases each year, this is meticulous winemaking at its finest. It means winemaker Thomas Rivers Brown and his team can keep these high-octane wines protected from potential faults throughout fermentation and élevage, never losing the fruit clarity that so clearly defines these wines. 

Cabernet vines in Schrader's Monastery block in Napa

RBS is made entirely from the Cabernet Clone 337 from Beckstoffer To Kalon. Jason Smith – Schrader’s in-house Master Sommelier – explains that this clone is their most fruit-driven; it can achieve phenomenal levels of ripeness and is known for its bright, fruit-forward style. Tasting the 2017, the wine is super intense, though the power is measured, pulsing with energy that builds beautifully on the palate. The purity of fruit is impressive and the fruit flavours mesh so well with the new oak tones, while a distinct red fruit character dominates. It is beautifully balanced, despite its opulence. Due to Clone 337’s natural style, it spends less time in new oak – around 18-19 months. 

CCS is made from Clone 4 Cabernet – also known as the Mendoza clone – in To Kalon. Clone 4 is known for its density on the mid-palate and is much more tannic and extracted than the RBS. The wine really does have a denser core and more intensity compared to Clone 337. The fruit character is also darker and much more brooding. The 2018 still has more to give and is a little clenched at the moment. The warmer 2018 vintage also would potentially emphasise that, but this is also the characteristic of the clone, built for longer ageing. 

The Heritage Clone cuvée is made with Clone 31 – the original clone planted by Robert Mondavi in To Kalon. The 2019 is a breath-taking wine. This is perhaps partly due to 2019 being an incredibly expressive vintage, but what is most notable is how the intensity is matched by overriding freshness. The balance of concentration and acidity from Clone 31 (at least in this vintage) really gives the wine a distinct character. It is stunning – and the length is really quite something.

Schrader's founder Fred Schrader

Old Sparky is Schrader’s top cuvée – a mix of Fred Schrader’s favourite blocks from To Kalon curated and blended differently each year. To taste the 2012 out of magnum, a wine now with some bottle age, was a rare treat, but also confirmed the precision at work at Schrader. After 10 years in bottle the wine has fully unfurled, the tannins bring structure but are open-knit. The depth is extraordinary. There are the first signs of tertiary development but the aromas are still so pure. It is a heavenly bottle and such is its balance that it is going to age effortlessly, but why resist this any longer, it is perfect now.  

Contrasting the three clonal wines side by side, it is undeniable that each of the wines have quite different personalities considering they are all Cabernet from the same vineyard and made by the same winemaker. When it comes to personality, the Heritage Clone bottling really stands out, but matches the other bottlings for its plushness and amazing fruit clarity. Old Sparky, as a blend of clones, also shows how well they can work together. Understanding the effects different clones have on wine flavour, structure, concentration and ageing potential is one more aspect to a wine’s make-up that, while not often so publicly addressed as with Schrader’s bottlings, has played an instrumental part over the last 20 years in building fine wine’s complexity. 

The latest vintage from Schrader is released each autumn. Find out more about the estate and browse all current listings of back-vintages, or read more about California 


Gavin Smith
Previously a wine buyer, Gavin Smith has been writing for FINE+RARE since 2018. A wine obsessive, he has visited Bordeaux and Burgundy every year since joining the wine trade in 2006 – and loves exploring the history and philosophy behind producers.