Clones: Don’t clone my heritage!

Before we sail into the world of clones, first, a note on taxonomic nomenclature. Winegrape varieties are all of the same genus and species, Vitis vinifera. What I just referred to as the ‘variety’ is also known as a “cultivar.” There is further variability at the level below cultivar, shadings that we variously call “clones” and “selections,” which provide the winegrower with knotty decisions as to what to plant and where.

We call clones those distinct genetic variations of a Vitis vinifera cultivar, Pinot noir, for example. The process of isolating, identifying, and evaluating clones, however, is a relatively recent process compared to the length of time Pinot noir has been farmed for wine. Historically, farmers used trial and error to improve their vineyard by propagating plant material from an existing vineyard block based on desirable phenological attributes: vine health, relative vigor, berry size, cluster size, time of ripening, and, of course, quality of resulting wine. The goal for the winegrower was to “weed out” the inferior plants. While plant material could be collected from vines that appeared to have similar attributes, there was no way of discerning that these plants were actually genetically the same (concept didn’t exist), or had the same disease status (difficult to know with certainty), and so we distinguish this type of plant material as a “selection” (selection “massale”).

Before the advent of government genetic certification (French or U.S.), all Pinot noir plantings were selections. Some popular selections were isolated and certified, others remain selections, sometimes referred to as “heritage clones,” though as I’ve just explained, they’re not truly clones. Making wine over the past decade, I have had the opportunity to taste wine from barrels that are vinified separately by clonal source. At both Flowers and Storrs Wineries, I knew the grapes came from specific blocks planted to specific clones. This allowed me to build an understanding for what features of the fruit expression may be attributable to clonal differences. Of course, the challenge in grapegrowing is that many variables may account for a certain experience on your palate; clonal source is only one possible explanation.

Though I am by no means done learning, in my experience of wine tasting so far, the various Pinot noir clones/selections represent a distinctive, broad range of flavors. This can be a very important tool to winegrowers. Whether we will always choose to blend clones/selections will depend on the particular wine, but we feel in general that greater nuance, complexity, and elegance can be attained with such a pallette of flavors to paint with during blending. And as an eccentric collector fascinated by the possibilities, I now farm nine different clones and selections of Pinot noir at our vineyard. As a result, the 2002 Pinot noir is a combination of heritage clones (Mt. Eden and Swan) and genetic clones (115, 667, and Pommard). We hope you enjoy it, whatever “it” is.

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