Watch out for a new word buzzing through the wine world: Clones!
I’ve been hearing it in tasting rooms, especially those that sample Pinot Noir, from Santa Barbara to the Russian River. Recently the word struck a sensitive nerve. “They should take their clones and shove them up their ass!” I said, about the wine you see in the photo.
We tasted it blind in our Friday night wine group and we all agreed that it was a domestic Syrah. Then someone said, “What about Pinot Noir?” The wine was maroon in color, had a Syrah nose and Syrah flavors. It was hot, high alcohol. No way! This was not Pinot Noir. If it was, the winemaker had to be deranged, I said. We unveiled the wine. It was Pinot Noir. Then someone read the back label. It announced that they had used 115 Dijon and Pommard clones in making the wine. That’s when those unkind words flew out of my mouth.
In viticulture, the word clone refers to the reproduction of a vine directly from a bud or shoot of another vine. Biologically this is known as asexual reproduction; no seeds are involved. Cloning is done by cutting a twig with a bud from the mother vine (known as a cutting or budwood) and grafting it to the rootstock of the recipient vine. Less commonly the budwood is directly planted in the ground and allowed to sprout its own roots.
Cloning has been around for ages. In the past it was mostly used to control vine yields or for disease protection. In a most famous example, the disastrous phylloxera epidemic of the 19thcentury that devastated European vineyards was eventually overcome by cloning American hybrids that were resistant to the root louse that caused the devastation.
Four Dijon & one Pommard clones
More recently, scientific research in viticulture yielded a new understanding that specific clones can affect wine quality. In the 1960s and 70s various clones were developed to solve the conundrum of pinot noir success in North America, then a seemingly impossible goal. Gradually a series of clones became available that allowed viticulturists and winemakers options in controlling various characteristics of vines and wines.
Developed jointly by French and American researchers, these new clones acquired names associated with certain regions, such as Dijon 114, 115, 667, 777, 828 developed at the University of Dijon, or Pommard 4 or Wädenswil 2A developed at UC Davis.
Initially embraced by Oregon winemakers who, using such clones, successfully built a distinguished Pinot Noir region in the New World, clones then spread across other appellations and varietals. Nowadays “a winemaker/grower selects cuttings the way a chef would select spices for his kitchen,” says wine writer Matthew Citriglia. There are actual recipes for the clones. For example:
Pinot Noir Dijon Clone 113: Naturally high yielding, very fruitful, early ripening. Classic blend of plum, cherry, and raspberry fruits with a cedar and pepper finish. Known for elegant aromatics.
Pinot Noir Pommard UCD 4: Consistent from year to year, has balanced vigor, late ripening, very fruitful. Can be blended or used alone. Known for spice and velvety texture.
Pinot Noir Wädenswil UCD 2A: High yielding if not managed, slow and later ripening, almost always the last picked, resistant to botrytis and powdery mildew, best grapes in wet years. High-toned fruit and aromatics make it a good component for adding elegance to blends.
And so it goes.
Cloning is one of countless technical steps that go into the creation of wine, well known by viticulturists and winemakers. They may also be of interest to super wine-geeks. But they have no business in wine labels or in the mouths of those who sell wines. Most consumers don’t understand or care about winemaking techniques.
So why is the spotlight shining on clones all of a sudden? Why else but PR!
What better way is there for newcomers into a crowded Pinot Noir field to get rapid respect by associating their product with names like Dijon, the gateway to Burgundy, motherland of the varietal, or Pommard, a highly respected appellation within this famous region that produces wines with sublime elegance?
The problem with clone promotion is that a Pommard clone does not necessarily result in Pommard-like wine. Terroir and winemaking remain crucial in the style of the final wine, easily outdoing the source clone. The Cattleya I so disliked, Pinot Noir grotesquely disfigured beyond recognition, is a good example of this.
The web site of Cattleya winery announces that their winemaker was trained in France. Do you think she somehow missed what true-to-the-grape Pinot Noir should be like? Of course not.
She is making extreme Syrah-like Pinot Noir because it is commercially viable. It caters to palates that are willing to pay big bucks for big wines. Never mind that it smells and tastes nothing like what it’s supposed to be.
I can appreciate this profit oriented mentality. Countless others are also doing it. But for Heaven’s sake, don’t associate your disfigured wines with exalted names like Pommard that imply something totally different than what your bottle delivers.
It is the hypocrisy of the new clone craze that infuriates me.