What Was That Grape Again?

(Originally published April 2006)

Spring is here, time for another annoying Hanes third person narrative. What could be better than that? Sadly, Hanes cannot lay on the cheese when it comes to this month's topic because every groan-inducing headline or snappy title has already been taken. So, rather than “clone” previous attempts at humor Hanes will just shoot straight and discuss what grape clones are and why they are important.

For the average wine drinker, a grape is a grape. That is, if the bottle label indicates the grape the wine is made from, then that's the grape the wine is made from. 'Nuff said. Some more knowledgeable swillers know there are rules which allow for minimal percentages of a given grape to be able to label a wine “varietally” (e.g., it can say Zinfandel on the label and still have 15% Petite Sirah in it with no mention of the latter). But what most people have not been schooled on is that for almost all grapes there are many different types of said grape. This means that to say a wine is “Sangiovese” may be considered deceptive because there are many existing “clones” of the Sangiovese grape and chances are high you'll never know which grape clone(s) got squished into juice and poured into your bottle. Hell, a lot of the time maybe the winemaker doesn't even know.

So, what are “clones” in the context of wine? Clonal differences are mutations in the genetic code of the grape bearing vine, particularly where the grapevine shoots out of the main vine. These mutations occur naturally and spontaneously over time, starting with a single cell and subsequently spreading to take over the entirety of the vine. So, it is not like the whole vine is bathed in cosmic rays and suddenly changes. The mutation occurs in one shoot which may then grow itself into a large, hardened vine. This vine is now fairly meta-static in its clonal difference. Until perhaps it mutates again.

Now, in winegrower speak, clones are a different thing. This is where human intervention comes in. You have that main “new” vine which has an interesting clonal difference (if it wasn't interesting no one would notice it, right?). This “mother” vine can then be asexually propagated, via cuttings and graftings and planted just about anywhere those crazy humans want. With luck the mother vine will not mutate and can remain a source of consistent new clones. Groups of clones from a certain mother vine with the same characteristics will be given an identifying number by the powers that be. These be usually in a university or large nursery which has the pedigree to ensure quality control when registering clones and such. The clones then get sold to other nurseries, wineries, your Uncle Al in Hackensack.

It is important to note that clones cannot mutate too much or they will lose their familial resemblance as a specific grape. The differences among clones can be minute or more substantial. And the changes cannot be sexual in nature because when that happens (via cross-pollination or hybridization between two grape varieties) science deems the result to be a new variety, not a clone.

Now, you can't march into a nursery and say gimme the ORIGINAL Chardonnay vine. Nobody knows what that is anymore, just which clones are relatively older than others, etc. You can go into a nursery and say gimme Chardonnay Dijon clone number 95. Here's where it all becomes a major headache. The grapes grown from vine cuttings of a certain clone may produce differences related to flavor, aroma or color. Or the differences may be more practical in nature. Let's discuss these in turn!

In terms of having a direct effect on the quality of the wine, clones may offer distinct advantages over their peer competitors. It seems that many wine growers favor clones which produce small grape berries and smaller overall yields. If Hanes had a nickel for every time he has read about the “intensely flavored” grapes that come from a winery snootily choosing Clone X he would be a rich man. Makes you wonder how those other clones manage to survive and propagate. Poor suckers.

Some clones produce a darker or lighter color, desirable if one is going for a certain “look.” And, for example, flavor descriptors associated with specific Chardonnay grape clones include spicy, honeyed, citrusy, minerally with emphases on tropical fruit, fig, pear or peach. There's a clone to suit any discriminating palate.

On the practical side of the ledger, there are clonal aspects which may be of great benefit. Some clones may vary in grape cluster size and density and thus help even ripening among the grapes. Others may undergo earlier budbreak or earlier ripening. Some possess more or less acidity. Simple vigor in a clone may be a desirable attribute if the goal is yield maximization. And some clones prove more resistant to some diseases. You have never truly lived until you have read a paper on how eight different clones of Albariño respectively resist powdery mildew (Plasmopara viticola).

The dangerous trap in discussing clones is thinking that there must be a “best” clone. What clone would Veruca Salt make her father plant? But there really isn't any “best” clone because of the vast impact “terroir” makes on viticulture. What works in the Russian River Valley may not work in Central Otago, etc., etc. Differing soil composition, temperatures, average rainfalls, vineyard drainage, exposure to warm sea breezes, all the million factors that go into choosing a vineyard site negate the concept of universally superior clones. The vast majority of Merlot planted in Washington State is clone FPMS#3. But does that mean other clones should never be experimented with throughout the state? In Australia clone SA1654 is the most widely planted type of Shiraz. Does that mean that it kicks butt in every Australian region or vineyard? No. Hell, “best” clone may not even apply to a given vineyard but maybe only a block or row of vines. Every winemaker and/or vineyard manager has to recreate the wheel, there's few if any shortcuts.

Clonal differences occur in varying rates among grape varieties. Pinot Noir is the most unstable grape of them all, with “inside cells” fairly frequently reaching the “outside” and creating visible differences among vines and grape bunches. Being one of the oldest grape varieties, maybe it's senile and keeps forgetting its genetic code. In Burgundy, France alone there are something in the area of 45 recognized clones (many referred to as “Dijon” clones). Worldwide, your guess is as good as anyone's, the “literature” says anywhere from 200 to 1,000 Pinot Noir clones.

Some grapes are more stable, with youth of the variety being a key factor. Sangiovese is an older varietal of some instability and has 45 recognized clones (or over 600 clones just in Montalcino, Tuscany depending on who you believe). The relatively young Cabernet Sauvignon has a simple 12 identified clones. And so on for all the various grape varieties. But the fact remains that we only notice clones that we notice. Duh. There may be tons of clonal mutations which go unnoticed and are thus more or less treated as the “same” grapes. Ahh, sweet mystery of life...

University Enology Departments are doing a lot to lead the way towards a better understanding of clonal differences and how best to isolate and propagate certain clones. And, as importantly, help prevent certain historical clones from becoming extinct. Groupings among more similar clones are made, while debating the extent to which clonal differences can be substantiated. In California, “heritage” projects involving both Zinfandel and Petite Sirah clones are ongoing. In McLaren Vale, Australia, a Shiraz clonal project has provided insights into the possibilities of more nuanced clonal selection in Australian vineyards. Give them a grant, these scientists will do anything. In a more commercial vein, the Yalumba Nursery in Barossa, Australia has had a clonal development program going since the late 1990's aimed at developing and selling superior old vine Shiraz clone cuttings.

A more recent development deserves mention here. Italian scientists have succeeded in mapping the entire genetic sequence of Pinot Noir, a major breakthrough which should influence human control over clonal differences and clones. This is the first fruit so mapped, with the only other food so sequenced being rice. The scientists showed that the pinot noir genome is spread across 12 chromosomes and is made up of around 500 million bases of DNA. We will only know the impact of this, and future similar genetic decoding, over the coming years.

OK, this is a great assemblage of facts Hanes, but what does it mean to me? Well, if you are drinking Two Buck Chuck probably not a lot. But once the bottles you drink creep up over $10 and spiral past $25 or so, it can be a lot. This is because the “mixing board” of the winemaker is full of clonal “samples.” If a winemaker decides that Clone X does well in Vineyard A, it's not like s/he plants nothing but Clone X from there on. Some plantings of Clone Y may add a certain little “sumpin', sumpin'” to the mix. Or their neighbor a town over have a parcel of Clone Z and boy does that add some kick when blended with all your Clone X. Only the fanciest of the fanciest really list which clones were used in a specific wine, as well as maybe the percentages of each. And for 99.9% of the drinking public that's just slick marketing as not many people can tell you the flavor difference among clones (especially when accounting for soil and climatic differences, as mentioned previously).

Instead, the difference is transparent to the drinker, who must hope it sure as hell isn't transparent to the winemaker. If a winemaker desires more luscious fruit, s/he should plant certain clones, if more acidity is desired other clones. Greater homogeneity or complexity can be achieved via clonal selection. Either with an eye on separating out the grapes for particular bottlings or blending them together. It is rare that an 100% mono-clonal wine is the best (and given the rate of mutations highly unlikely anyway, even if this goes unknown). And the vineyard managers and winemakers should know when a certain clone isn't panning out and should be replaced in a specific vineyard with a different clone.

Experimenting with different clones in different vineyard blocks and then mixing the resultant wines in varying lots and proportions is kind of the hidden “heavy lifting” done by the winemaker. And it is an ongoing process, one where victories are temporary. New clones may become available. Recurring weather patterns may change (hello, global warming), effecting clonal performance. Disease may wipe out certain clones. The focus of the winery's winemaking style may change. The damn grapes may even mutate again!

The lesson here is that the average consumer should not assume that Chardonnay tastes differently from Burgundy to New Zealand to Napa Valley only because of different climates and such. Which clones are grown remains a considerable factor, if little advertised by the wine industry. But it's probably for the best. Imagine how much longer Hanes's tasting notes would be if he had to list the clones used too!