Geeking Out About Grape Variety Clones

Photo taken by self and uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Mike and Jonathan Sauer of Red Willow Vineyard

As part of the Wine Production Program at South Seattle College our instructor, Peter Bos, arranged for a private tour of the famed Red Willow Vineyard in the Yakima Valley with Mike and Jonathan Sauer back in 2012.

In Washington State, few vineyards are as legendary and influential in charting the future growth of the state’s industry as Red Willow. Working with both Dr. Walter Clore and Master of Wine David Lake at Columbia Winery, the Sauers and Red Willow helped pioneer the commercial plantings of numerous grape varieties in the state like Viognier, Malbec, Mourvedre, Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Tempranillo and Syrah.

So it was very interesting when the question was posed to Mike Sauer about what the future focus should be for the wine industry–not just in Washington, but globally.

Without missing a beat he replied with one word–Clones.

What The Heck Are Clones?

Essentially clones are examples of grape varieties with a slight genetic mutation. These mutation could allow the vine to ripen a tad earlier, bloom a bit later, have tinier berries or thicker skin, absorb nutrients better, etc.

To best understand this, let’s take a step back to look at how grapevines are propagated in the nursery and vineyard.

Rather than plant seeds (which will produce a completely different grape variety), new vines of particular grape varieties like Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, etc are most often propagated via cuttings from an original mother vine. Here a branch with fruiting buds is removed from an active vine and then either planted to develop its own roots or, more commonly, grafted onto phylloxera resistant rootstock and planted. In theory, this new cutting is genetically identical to its mother vine.

Photo by scrumpyboy (Mark Shirley). Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Grapevine cuttings

But sometimes differences are observed in the vineyard or the nursery among these seemingly identical vines. These are the clonal mutations with the most beneficial ones being selected for future propagation and eventual commercial use.

What Does This Mean For Winemakers?

Clones add another shade of color to the winemaker’s palette. Instead of just having one shade of blue (Syrah), you can plant multiple clones of Syrahs in similar terroir and end up with a multitude of shades like Cerulean, Azure, Cobalt, Zaffre, etc that help you paint a deeper picture and potentially make a more complex wine.

They also allow viticulturists and winemakers to narrow in on exactly which clones perform best on different kinds of terrior, essentially following the path of the natural self-selection that we’ve seen in varieties like Sangiovese. Over centuries of time, this grape has adapted and developed its own unique clones in the galestro clay soils of the Chianti Classico region (Sangioveto), the more limestone and schist based soils mixed with galestro in Brunello di Montalcino (Sangiovese Grosso) and the Pliocene-era sand and clay based soils of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (Prugnolo Gentile).

Take one of these unique clones and plant them in a different soil type and you will end up with a different wine. Such is the magic and possibilities of clones.

A Few of My Favorite Resources On Clones

Photo by Stephan Ridgway. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Syrah grapes growing in the Hunter Valley of Australia.

*Pl@ntGrape Project (yes, it is spelled with that silly ‘@’) — a joint project between several French agencies to catalog all the different grape varieties and their clones in France. When you search for a particular grape variety, you can scroll down to the bottom of the page to see a listing of several of the popular clones, where they originated and characteristics.

For example, Syrah has over 600 clones studied with 12 approved for commercial propagation–clones 100, 174, 300, 470, 471, 524, 525, 747, 877, 1140, 1141 and 1188

Chenin blanc has over 200 clones studied with 8 approved for commercial propagation–clones 220, 278, 416, 417, 624, 880, 982 and 1018.

Riesling has nearly 190 clones that have been studied with 8 approved for commercial propagation–clones 49, 1089, 1090, 1091, 1092, 1094, 1096 and 1097.

Malbec (Cot) has around 220 clones that have been studied with 16 approved for commercial propagation–clones 42, 46, 180, 279, 353, 419, 592, 593, 594, 595, 596, 597, 598, 1061, 1127 and 1128.

*UC Davis Foundation Plant Services page on Pinot noir probably has the most extensive listing (in English) and description of Pinot noir clones I’ve found. Pretty impressive since Pinot noir is known to have over a 1000 different clones.

*The Science of Grapevines: Anatomy and Physiology by Markus Keller. Hardcore geeking here with this viticulture textbook that not only covers clones but also the science behind how the mutations happened as well as the broad spectrum of grapevine anatomy and physiology (disease resistance, nutrient utilization, etc) which obviously plays into the decision on how different clones are selected.

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