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  • Writer's pictureJack Costa

Clones: A Winemaker's Guide to the Galaxy

Updated: May 7


What do winemakers, Vincent Van Gogh, and Star Wars have in common? A lot. 



Picture this. Rome has been invaded. Chaos is spreading to every corner of European life. The political and economic stability of Rome has disintegrated, plunging Europe into what is famously known as the Dark Ages. From Ireland to Italy, you face the grim reality of invasions by barbarians and conflicts among local tribes or nearby cities. Art and culture stagnate, and survival becomes the primary focus for everyone, from farmers to nobles, who were at the mercy of the weather, disease, and the caprices of higher nobility. Life was arduous and death inevitable. Sounds delightful, doesn’t it?


Despite the grim circumstances, the monks of the Medieval period might be credited with single-handedly saving the cultural soul of Europe from obscurity with churches and monasteries emerging as beacons of stability in an era known for anything but calm. The monks accumulated vast tracts of land through endowments, becoming larger landowners than some nobles, thus establishing themselves as the economic bedrock of early medieval society.


While much of Europe languished, the monks endeavored to keep the flame of many traditions alive and innovate existing ones. Among these included developing distillation (the first ‘Scotch’ is attributed to a monk) and the discovery of brewing beer with hops and developing Parmesan cheese. 


Given the spiritual significance and the perceived magical and medicinal properties of wine, it is no surprise the monk's contributions also extended into winemaking and viticulture (thank Friar Tuck for your favorite Oregon Pinot Noir). Over the next few hundred years, the monks became the world's most adept winemakers and viticulturists, with monasteries becoming winemaking hubs that reportedly produced hundreds of thousands of gallons (records show some produced 11,000 gallons annually) for both general consumption and communal purposes.


They developed sophisticated systems of record-keeping and fertilization protocols for vineyard health (they’re credited for using marl to decrease soil acidity), improved clarity in wine (since turbidity in water could be your demise), and let's not overlook the legend of the monk Dom Perignon, who added some extra sparkle to wine. They enhanced pruning methods and devised a detailed farming calendar for vineyards. The centralized workforce of the abbeys allowed them to produce and store vast quantities of wine for extended periods, rivaling even today's standards, with some becoming the sole suppliers of royal courts from France to Hungary. 


Among their countless contributions to winemaking, the monks also began (whether they realized it completely) one of the most intriguing and perhaps secretive topics in winemaking today: cloning grapevines. 

 

If you've taken a high school biology class or seen Star Wars, you’ll know that clones are exact genetic replicas of another entity, or as Merriam-Webster defines, “genetically identical cells or organisms.”  In winemaking, the process of cloning a grapevine, though seemingly modern, is rooted in the soil of antiquity with winegrapes olives, dates, and figs having been cloned since the days of Gilgamesh.


Why Clone A Grapevine?

Imagine discovering a vine that consistently produces 100-point-rated wines. You'd probably want to cultivate more of this exceptional vine, right? While this scenario may seem idealized, who wouldn't desire an abundance of top-rated wines? To clone the vine, you’d retrieve a cutting from the mother vine and plant that cutting. Voila. You’ve cloned a vine. 

By cultivating vines from cuttings rather than seeds, you preserve and produce a plant identical to the mother vine. Planting by seed, however, will yield a new version of the grape or a completely new variety altogether. New clonal variations — or new varieties — can also arise through natural mutations in the vineyard over time. Pinot Grigio, for example, is technically a mutation of Pinot Noir. While the clusters of Pinot Noir and Pinot Grigio are strikingly similar in shape and appearance, the pale skins of Pinot Grigio are the defining difference making it suitable for producing only rose and white wines. 



Below I've provided an illustrated overview of cloning vines via cuttings.





Clonal VS Massal Selection

Despite no understanding of genetics, the monks of the Medieval era were quite aware of the variances among individual vines. As diligent record keepers and expert vignerons, they noted these differences, pinpointing which vines and plots yielded the most superior fruit—an early incarnation of clonal selection, albeit less precise than contemporary methods.

Instead of propagating a new vineyard from a single parent vine, however, they gathered cuttings from several top-performing vines to establish a new vineyard. This process, known as Massal Selection, in theory, would produce superior-quality fruit from the mother vineyard, thereby enhancing the overall quality of the wine from that particular plot. This meticulous evaluation of vine and site selection would eventually lay the groundwork for the modern premier and grand cru classifications of Burgundy.


Blending Varieties vs. Clones

Because single-varietal wines can often lack something, Winemakers will blend different grape varieties to balance flavors and enhance complexity (Bordeaux blends are a prime example of this technique). However, by blending several varieties, you lose the most coveted and quintessential flavors of a particular grape. Blending clones from the same variety can preserve the finest attributes of that grape, thereby maintaining the desired varietal characteristics in the final wine while also enhancing complexity.


Types of Clones


Fruit and Structure Clones

The industry often categorizes clones into two distinct categories: fruit and structure clones. Fruit clones are notable for their pronounced fruity flavors, contrasting with structure clones, which may lack these dominant fruity notes but enhance the wine's texture and tannins. Blending these clones harmonizes the wine, compensating for what each clone lacks individually. 


Think of Vincent Van Gogh. Whether you're familiar with his work or not, it's hard not to be captivated by the layered dimensions of his paintings. In "Starry Night," Van Gogh doesn’t just use an array of harmonious colors, but specific brush strokes that amplify the texture perceived on the canvas. These elements—color and texture—work independently yet synergistically, much like how fruit and structure clones introduce new facets to wine.


Additional Types of Clones

Given the myriad of variations of any single grape type, it’s evident that each vine harbors unique traits and distinctive characteristics that surpass simply enhancing fruity aroma or texture. In addition to yielding superior wine, some clones might ripen earlier, yield smaller berries (ideal for amplifying the flavor in red wines), or even exhibit resistance to particular diseases). Some clones (like the Dijon Chardonnay Clones) provide a wine with increased ability or intensified aromatics.


Research and Development of New Clones

On the UC Davis Plant Foundation Service, you can browse hundreds of clonal selections of any grape, with detailed notes on the attributes of each clone. Some universities, like Minnesota State, have breeding programs that develop and trademark clones, acquiring royalties from nurseries that sell them. Surprising, right? Other public and private enterprises research and propagate new vine materials. One such organization, the Association de la Sauvegarde de la Diversité des Cépages de Bourgogne, is a collaborative network of some of the most prestigious Grand Crus in Burgundy's Côte d'Or. Unsurprisingly, they are very protective of their work and reluctant to share knowledge outside their immediate circle; there have even been reports that thieves have stolen cuttings from some of these coveted wineries. 


Downsides to Cloning

On the face of it, you might think using superior clones would be a universally accepted improvement to wine. There are however some caveats and critics to clonal selection. One such critique is that modern wine loses its distinctiveness when everyone uses identical clones. The Dijon clones of Pinot Noir, originating from just five distinct vines, are the most widely used in Burgundy. Many (possibly a majority of winemakers worldwide) plant these for their quality and consistent yields. 

Another notable example is Concannon Vineyard in Napa, which is recognized for producing the first Cabernet Sauvignon in California. Established in the late 1800s, James Concannon cultivated his vineyard with vines sourced directly from the esteemed Chateau Margaux in Bordeaux. After Prohibition, UC Davis acquired three cuttings from Concannon's Margaux vines which eventually became known as clones 7, 8, and 11. 

Due to their disease resistance and ability to produce high-quality fruit, these quickly became the most popular and extensively planted Cabernet Sauvignon clones in California. It is estimated that roughly 80% of California's Cabernet Sauvignon is derived from these three clones, which certainly points to a lack of variety. 


Final Thoughts

Recognizing the inherent value of incorporating multiple clones in the blending process is straightforward. Exploring and cloning new variants of a specific grape through cuttings can significantly elevate the quality and ensure consistency in your varietal wines. Astute winemakers should meticulously select clones that best complement their winemaking style, aiming to make a wine that accentuates the finest attributes of each clone while also creating an extraordinary wine that wows the consumer. As we continue to progress and develop new clones for winemaking, the relative quality is sure to improve. Whether winemakers opt for clonal or massal selection, this means premium wines can be made that consistently highlight the best qualities of a single grape variety. Just like Van Gogh and his painting, winemakers can approach making wine in a similar manner: artfully knitting together the best qualities of each clone to create more enchanting and harmoniously balanced wine. 







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