Have you ever been at a wine tasting where the winemaker waxes on and on about clones? Pinot noir Clone 777, Dijon clones, Wente clones -- if you picture mad scientists concocting a Frankenstein wine, you're not alone.
"When you talk clones to a consumer, they're thinking guys in white lab coats with petri dishes in a lab doing genetic engineering," says Mike Crumly, the vice president of production at Sonoma's Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyard. He has supervised the grape growing there since 1987 and knows a thing or two about clones.
"Cloning in the vineyard is so old school, it's been done for hundreds and hundreds of years," he says.
Even though clones have that sci-fi connotation, they're not created in a lab -- you could call them a freak of nature. But first, you have to understand how vines reproduce.
"Grapevines are all propagated from cuttings, so there's no sexual reproduction. If I take buds off this vine," Crumly says, pointing to a bud on a single cane, "every vine that grows out of these buds is genetically identical to this vine."
Unless there's a mutation.
Sometimes, a cell on a vine mutates, changing that cell's DNA. If that mutation occurs in one bud, all cells in that bud will be mutated. When that bud grows into a shoot, Crumly says you can spot it -- that shoot will look different from the others. If you take a cutting from that one mutated shoot and take each bud and propagate it onto a new vine, a new clone is born.
Grape clones are specific to a particular variety, say Pommard clones for pinot noir or Wente clones for chardonnay. Each clone grows a little differently and produces a slightly different flavor, color and tannin content.
"I think if we changed the word from clone to selection, consumers wouldn't shy away from it so much." Crumly says.
The number of clones depends on the variety. Some may have only a few; others, such as pinot noir, can have more than 1,000. That's why people geek out more over pinot clones than any other variety.
So all those clones you hear about -- 115, 777, Pommard, Dijon, Swan, Wente, Martini -- came from mutants. Not all mutations are good, as in the case of an albino mutant cane. "There was a mutation where chloroplasts (cells responsible for photosynthesis, turning leaves green) were not being made," Crumly says, "so all the leaves were white."
Once you have a new clone, you don't know right away if it makes a worthy wine. That takes years to determine. That's one reason why Crumly started conducting clone trials at the winery, to determine a selection of pinot noir and chardonnay vines best suited for Gloria Ferrer's sparkling wine.
"We went to Champagne in France," he says, "and asked them to give us all of their clone cuttings."
Crumly ended up with 20 different Champagne clones for pinot noir and chardonnay -- and an epic mission. He planted a nursery of sorts with those clones, then waited more than 20 years for the vines to mature into a real producing vineyard.
The result of this mad scientist experimentation? Some of the clones -- such as pinot noir clones 779 and 927 -- made great wines. Others had what Crumly calls "too much stuffing -- bigger flavors and tannins than we'd want for delicate sparkling wine. What we learned is which clones give us nice, balanced, softer wines."
And now those are the clones making sparkling wines at Gloria Ferrer.