Jesse Baron

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The Clone Question

Jeffery Lindenmuth - September 2007

Is clonal info on a wine label a conversation starter or is it saying too much? Sommeliers, enologists, and winemakers weigh in on the topic.

The word "clone" conjures images of Dolly the sheep and the cinematic battles of the Star Wars trilogy with battalions of futuristic clone armies reaching to the horizon. But cloning, or vegetative propagation, has been used to preserve desirable characteristics in wine grapes for centuries. Because vitis vinifera mutate very readily, even yielding different colors of grapes on the same vine, the only way to maintain characteristics across generations is by selection and propagation through rooting or grafting of cuttings from established vines.

This process has gone on quietly for centuries, probably millennia, without much thought from the end drinker. But recently, cloning has moved to front label status with wineries like Napa Valley's TOR producing several clonal designated wines, including TOR Chardonnay Two Rivers Ranch Dijon Clone 2003 and the Huxleyan sounding Napa Valley Cabernet Sau­vi­gnon (Clone 4) 2002.

According to professor Andrew Walker, grape breeder, viticulturist, and geneticist in the Viticulture and Enology Department at the University of California at Davis, identifying clonal variations within a given grape variety is surprisingly low-tech. "A clone is anything you can distinguish and then propagate vegetatively," says Walker. For instance, a grower might observe that one Chardonnay vine is preferable in terms of budbreak, duration of ripening, berry size, cluster formation, or even leaf shape, decide to propagate it, and a clone is born. Some mutations are so indisputable and so obvious as to merit a new varietal name, like Pinot Gris and Pinot Meunier, both begat by Pinot Noir.

On a genetic level, however, grape clones of the same variety are nearly indistinguishable. "Over the last several years people have looked at ways of better identifying grape clones, but there is no practical way to distinguish clones from each other because they are so genetically similar. If we DNA sequenced each plant and compared, oh maybe 50 billion pairs of genes, we'd find maybe a few small differences—small but important," says Walker.

These differences are so critical in the view of some that vineyards, like Wente Vineyards in California, have attained almost mythical status for their vines, which have been widely cloned. While UC Davis maintains a library of virus-free clones for vineyard plantings, it is rare to see their cryptic call letters on wine labels. Currently, the most popular attributions are to familiar vineyards and Old World regions, like "Dijon clone," or "Pommard clone," each of which, according to Walker, can actually represent a family of many clones.

Of course, there is no guarantee, or even likelihood, of replicating a great vineyard simply by pilfering a few woody canes of vine from Burgundy's La Tâche. "Even with the latest and greatest clones that have come out of development, you have to run test plots on your own soil and site to deter­mine what does well," says Aaron Piotter, red wines winemaker at Ferrari-Carano Vine­yards and Winery in Healdsburg, Cali­fornia. Sometimes a clone is touted to be drought tolerant or reduce vigor, but that vine may not do that with your vineyard site." While wine­makers may favor certain clones for their flavor profile or intensity, matching grape variety and grape clone to site remains paramount. "We have a Cab clone called 338 and we call it ‘3-3-late' because it ripens so late. Although we like the character, we have to be very careful where we put it," says Piotter.

Walker maintains that in making quality wine, site selection is the most important determination in planting a vineyard, followed by management practices like irrigation, canopy management, training, and trellising. Somewhere nearer to the bottom, he puts clone selection. "After all those really, really important things you are getting into nuance. It is tiny, but no doubt real, and I think clones have that little to do with the final outcome of the wine in terms of quality. What they do is give you flexibility," says Walker. As a viticulturist, he proposes that most vineyards should contain multiple clones to give the winemaker more options for blending and act as a hedge against vintage conditions.

Sarah Quider, white wines winemaker for Ferrari-Carano, says she often works with single vineyards planted with four or five different Chardonnay clones. "With Chard you have really floral clones, like 809, which is almost too intensely floral for me. You have to be careful how you use it, so it's blended with more apple and pear and citrus clones," says Quider.

So why the proliferation of the mention of clones on labels? Eugenio Jardim, wine director at Jardinière in San Francisco, credits the wines of Oregon, which include two of the most widely mutated varieties—Pinot Noir and Chardonnay—with bringing "clone" to the wine label. After decades of struggling with Chardonnay clones UCD 4 and 5, known collectively as Selection 108, Dijon clones that ripened better in Oregon's cool climate were introduced. "In Oregon, they are on the forefront because they made all these mistakes, but they caught it and are correcting it," says Jardim. "Winemakers are finding out that by choosing the right clones they are making better wines and by putting this on the label they are telling you they have done their research."

According to the Oregon Chardonnay Alliance, over 500 acres of Dijon clone Chardonnay are grown in the state. Wineries proud of the quality heralded by these newcomer clones, including Domaine Serene, St. Innocent Winery, Eola Hills Wine Cellars, Amalie Robert, and others, broadcast "Dijon clone" on their front labels.

Still, Jardim, who prefers to keep his wine list "simple and uncluttered," questions the value of clonal information to the end consumer. "I think they are only distinctive within a certain producer, not across producers. Within a specific house it makes sense to know, so I will respect the winemaker and put the information in quotes on my list," he says. "However, my opinion is clonal selection will tell you very little about the wine."

Some, like James Hamilton, sommelier at L'Impero in New York City, see clonal information as an extension of labeling terms like reserve, single-vineyard, and block, some of which have more credibility than others. "You can call a wine anything you want," says Ham­il­ton, "but to identify it by clone is classy, mysterious, and at the same time historical. However, it doesn't indicate anything about flavor."

Hamilton says that clonal information and clone history are "hot button" topics among devout wine geeks, even if they fall under the category of too-much-information for most consumers. "You don't care what clone your orange is, but put the term on the label and it becomes romantic," he says.

Having worked as a winemaker at several locations, including Joseph Swan Vineyards in the Russian River Valley, renowned for their eponymous Pinot Noir clone, Jim Rollston, wine director at Cyrus Restaurant in Healdsburg, California, is well equipped to field diners' questions on clones. As a winemaker, he finds clonal selection fascinating; as a consumer, he finds it more frivolous. "I hate techno-geek babble at the table, so when people inquire, I have to gauge their genuine interest. I think individual winemaker style and the producer are far more important. Clonal specifics are a little excessive," says Rollston.

In discussing the TOR Chardonnays on his list, several of which are identified by clone, Rollston tries to simplify the science and return the conversation to producers and a sense of place. "I might say, ‘You know Wente Vineyards in Livermore? Well, they're important to the California wine scene. This winery took some cuttings from there, and that's where these grapes come from.'"

Science, in fact, would be hard pressed to say much beyond Rollston's concise explanation. Walker says that clone varieties on the front label might be useful for naming wines but are "ultimately a gimmick that could backfire," weighting regional info and also technical info on acid and tannins over clonal varieties in terms of gauging a wine's taste. "You can take whatever plant you like, propagate it, and call it a clone. There is no way to detract or prove that. So it's interesting. They are very real, but it's a fuzzy area of science," he says.