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What Are Clones: Simple Guide

Today, the possibilities of what one can do scientifically with grapes and grapevines is almost limitless. The progress made in the natural sciences have been dazzling and dizzying, to say the least, and every bottle of wine we drink has benefited from our greater understanding of how to produce more characterful, flavourful and aromatic fruit.

It’s impossible to talk about the science of viticulture without making some mention of clones. While once this term was saved mainly for the scientific community, consumers and wine fans are beginning to see it more and more on the labels of their favourite bottles, and are taking a deeper interest into where their wines have come from, and in the origins of the grapes they’re made of. So, what exactly is a clone? And how have people been able to clone grapevines for so long? Let’s take a deeper look and see for ourselves.

What is a clone?

The word ‘clone’ has had a bit of a bad rap in recent years. Indeed, the word itself conjures up images of dead-eyed sheep, of mad scientists and futuristic, Star Wars-type battle droids. The reality really isn’t quite as exciting as all that, but understanding what clones are and the purpose they serve does give us a good insight into the contemporary wine industry.

If you want to understand what a grape clone is, you first need to look at what they are for. As most of us know, the vast majority of fruiting plants reproduce sexually. Just like most living things on this planet, two parent plants combine their genetic material in order to create a seed, which then becomes an offspring. The plant world has an endlessly fascinating array of methods to trigger this process, but grapevines generally use the classic combination of wind power and the assistance of helpful insects, bees and other creepy-crawlies. The offspring of the grapevine will then be in possession of two sets of characteristics: half from the ‘mother’, the other half from the ‘father’. Most of the time, that’s all well and good – for hundreds of thousands of years, this is the only way that vines could reproduce, and it led to much of the variation we see in the world today.

However, what if you wanted to exactly replicate the characteristics of one particular vine, and didn’t want to leave things to chance? This is something which happens when grape growers succeed in raising vines with highly beneficial features, for example a vine with perfect aromatic qualities, or strong resistance to frost, or a particularly interesting and pleasant flavour etc. When this happens, the winemaker will look into producing a clone – essentially, an exact genetic replica of just one parent plant.

How do you clone a grapevine?

While the concept of cloning seems incredibly complicated (and when it comes to cloning animals, it really is incredibly complicated), the cloning of plants is actually a really rather simple process, and one which has been at the heart of agricultural developments over the centuries. In order to clone a grapevine and end up with an identical offspring, all that needs to be done is for the winemaker to take a cutting from the mother vine, and plant it in a suitable place where it might sprout roots of its own. The cutting can also be grafted onto an already growing vine. The grapevine that grows is highly likely, then, to be genetically identical to its parent, although the possibility of there being a genetic mutation is still present… but that’s another topic for another day.

While clones are produced in order to maintain and reproduce certain characteristics, that isn’t to say that the wines made from clones are all identical. Far from it, in fact. One of the wonderful things about grapes is their expressiveness, and the fact that the grapevine is a plant which quickly adapts to its environment. Think about it for a moment: almost all of the wine regions of New World countries, including Chile, the USA, Canada, Australia and more, are planted with clones of grapevines from the Old World, most commonly from France. Do the grapes end up tasting the same, and producing similar wines? Generally speaking, not at all. They might end up with some of the same qualities – for example, both Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from Bordeaux and Napa Valley have strong, tannic characters and age-worthy potential, but each expresses its terroir in a unique way, because the terroir it is grown on is unique in itself. Fascinating, isn’t it?

Most popular grape clones

There are countless numbers of clones out there, and that number is rising every day. They’re relatively easy to source, and vignerons can easily select the best clones for their plot of land, in order to maximise yields, encourage particular characteristics, or to better suit particular conditions.

As such, it’s quite usual to clone grape varietals which are in demand, and yet are perhaps not the easiest to cultivate in the more traditional methods. This is neatly demonstrated in the number of Pinot Noir clones out there – a notoriously tricky grape, but by cloning particular strains of the vine, you can ensure higher levels of success for your vineyard. Wherever there is Pinot Noir, you’re also sure to find Chardonnay; another highly popular grape to clone, as this expressive varietal offers plenty of variation and different characteristics which may be desirable for winemakers in various parts of the world. Syrah, too, seems to be a highly popular grape to clone, as the differences between Old World and New World Syrah wines are fairly stark, and vintners in, say, South Africa, may be interested in looking into ways to make their Syrah wine more closely resemble one made in the Rhone Valley.

It’s becoming more and more common for wineries to clearly label their bottles with the origin of their cloned grapes – for example, a Sonoma wine may be labeled as being made from ‘Burgundy Pinot Noir Clones’. In an age where backstories, a sense of authenticity and a connection with tradition in wine is ever more important, wineries and their consumers often see this as a powerful selling point.

So there you have it – next time you see on your bottle’s label that a vineyard has been planted with clones taken from Burgundy, etc, you’ll know what that really means! Do you think these things are important, or do they take away something from the natural variation present in wine? Let us know in the comments below!

Benjamin Mitrofan-Norris is a wine critic and journalist from Bristol, UK. He is a lover of life's finer things and has a particular fondness for Alsatian and Eastern European wines, which he fell in love with during his three years working in Budapest.

1 Comment

  • November 2, 2017
    Sharon Ellis

    I don’t think its important to have the named clone, but nice to know the grape your wine is made from. Depending of course if you are trying to impress someone.