Vine Clones

When I received the request to write an article on clones and “clonal selection” I double-checked with my editor if I was the best choice for authorship. Wes Hagen writing about clones is like Hugh Hefner writing about monogomy, or Miles from Sideways penning an article on the “Beauty of Merlot.”

I suspect that the subject is complex enough, and important enough, for me to try to sublimate my distaste for an American love affair with clonal selection so I can manage to write an entertaining and educational piece on it. And as I researched and prepared this article I decided that to really understand grapevine clones we need to start with my strong opinions on the subject, and then circle back and give some useful advice to the home viticulturist.

I want to believe that the day will come when Americans will have their own wine culture without relying on a French inflection. In his brilliant book, Religion: An Anthropological View, Anthony Wallace explains how a religion that develops in a conquered land will be influenced by the religion of the conquered. This is why Sumerian mythos is so prevalent in the Bible, or why Baptists handle rattlesnakes in a region where they were once sacred to the American Indians, or why Voodoo mixes Catholicism and tropical paganism. We do the same thing with wine in the United States. The French are our wine Gods.

Let’s be honest. As a wine culture we are young, ignorant, and rough around the edges. The oldest California winemaking families are perhaps six generations deep dating back to the 1850s, while grapes have been cultivated in Gaul since the conquests of Julius Caesar, if not longer. While it’s true that French winemaking families are being influenced by the “International Style” (queue the hissing as Monsieur Parker and Rolland walk on and off the stage), we are still more enamored with the French than they are of us. We like to use “Domaine,” “Chateau,” and “Clos” in the names of our California wineries (Clos Pepe does not escape the sting of this lash), to give our businesses panache, a sense of history, and craft that is deeper and more ancient than we can ourselves fathom. We visit Clos Vougeot and see the ancient wine presses. We taste wines from vineyards first planted in the 9th century. The psychological impact of those experiences deeply impacts the psyche of the American winemaker and wine culture. We try to hang a beret on our brand, slip a truffle under the skin, put a Gallic veneer on our labels and our cellar doors.

Vine clones of French winegrape varietals, known technically as cultivars or “genetic accessions,” are a profound example of the lengths American winegrowers will go to attempt to pilfer a little glimmer from the Tour D’argent. The French association called ENTAV has carefully isolated “clones” of various varieties since 1962, and these materials are the basis of most varietal plantings throughout the New World. Clones come in and out of vogue (tres Americain!), but we continue to be in love with the idea that we can capture the essence of French tradition by planting French vines in the United States and get similar results.

The vast majority (99%+) of all grapevines that produce wine today can be traced back to a single grapevine that appeared between the Black and Caspian Seas in the Neolithic period. This was a vine that became “perfected” (basically hermaphroditic), likely due to early human discovery of a genetic mutant that produced an amazing amount of fruit in the wild. That single hermaphrodite vine was propagated, traded, traveled, and planted throughout the ancient world. Everywhere it was put in the dirt it mutated into the varieties that we recognize today.

Then those varieties went through further genetic mutations to become slightly distinct from each other. These became cultivars, and the pure genetic mother of each cultivar is a numbered or coded plant that, theoretically, produces the scion material for every plant that bears its code. But even this idea has problems. Every time a “mother cultivar” pushes buds into shoots, those shoots are genetically distinct from the canes from whence they pushed. The numbered “mother” (e.g. Pinot Noir 777) exists at ENTAV and at Foundation Plant Material Services at UC-Davis — but guess what? They are not genetically the same plant after one year in the ground. They have adapted to their individual soils, climate, — merde, I almost said terroir. In other words, there is no such thing as a clone. Do these “clones” produce a style of wine that is similar to the same clone in other regions? Yes. Pinot Noir 667 will taste like Pinot Noir when it is planted in an amenable site — but tests have shown that tiny differences in soil, climate, and aspect often trump the importance of clonal selection in a
Pinot Noir vineyard.

But it gets worse! When vineyards in the US are replanted, we rip out the wonderfully adapted plants that have developed and mutated to match the microclimate where they are growing, and we “reset” the vineyard by using “pure” clonal material every 25–40 years. We are hamstringing our own viticultural evolution, neglecting our vineyards’ desire to mutate into vines that are adapted to our own growing conditions.

Of course we have to plant something, and this is where our article is heading, but by relying on clones we are guaranteeing that we never develop our own heritage varietals, the final step to becoming a truly independent wine culture. I have always wanted to replant my family’s vineyard with massal selection: Having vines custom grafted from buds sourced from our most perfectly balanced Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vines, regardless of clone/cultivar. In this way, the vineyard will maintain every genetic advantage gained from climatic/soil adaptation vis a vis human intervention and choosing for balance and quality. Ironically, this is the way the French replant their vineyards. I guess I’m just another sucker for French vine culture. C’est la vie.

It’s nice to have strong opinions about vine science and history, but it’s also necessary to choose a type of grape clone/rootstock combination to plant, grow and make wine.

Steps for Choosing a Clone for Your Vineyard

Before we start, let’s review our vitis vocabulary: Varietal/Variety: A winegrape “type” such as Riesling, Chardonnay, or Cabernet Franc. Cultivar: When you use the word “clone,” you are using a slightly less correct term for cultivar. Some scientists like to call them “accessions” — these are the specific random genetic mutations that were captured by human observation and ingenuity, given a name or number, and are kept as “clonal mother vines” at FPMS in California, ENTAV in France, the Italian National Catalog, or the many other repositories of winegrapes throughout the world. These nurseries prepare buds and bud wood from these mother vines so there is consistency within the “clonal material” that is sold to vineyards and individuals. This wood is generally “bench-grafted,” or mechanically cut, married to a developed rootstock, dipped in melted wax to keep the union moist and viable, and shipped out ready to plant.

Some vines are planted as simple cuttings with no rootstock grafted on, and these “own-rooted vines” are very economical (cheap), but have no resistance to nematodes or phylloxera. Own-rooted vines are generally not suggested for small backyard vineyards. The cost between a few hundred grafted vines is, in my professional opinion, worth the confidence that the vines will not collapse from soil-borne pathogens/disease/critters in just a few years. The rarest of vineyards is created from a native, volunteer, or vine that has “always been there as long as anyone can remember.” The vine is propagated into the same property/environment by layering vine shoots into the ground and then back into the atmosphere and after a few years’ growth, cut from the mother. It could also be propagated by taking cuttings or even using seeds.

A hybrid vine (such as Norton, Chardonnel, or Vidal Blanc) is created by using a dry paintbrush to apply pollen from a varietal (male pollen) onto the ovary (female proto-grape) of a second grape variety, and then carefully observing and testing the result. The process is a bit more complicated than just painting pollen, but this process has done wonders for producing hybrid grape cultivars that are well-adapted to more difficult viticultural areas.

1. Balance what you like to drink with cultivars/varietals that have shown success, or at least promise, in your geographic neighborhood. This is a recurring theme in almost every article I write. I strongly suggest you grow the wine that expresses itself with the greatest quality and flavor for your locale. You may love Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon, but for 99% of the Unites States, those are poor matches for soil and climate and will likely make wine that will not excite you or your friends. In much of the country, hybrids are the best choice. Norton, Vidal, Diamond — the choices expand almost every year with the excellent research and husbandry led by the University of Minnesota and Cornell.

As always, my suggestion is to do the best type of research: Drinking! Start at a few hundred miles, tasting as many wines that are produced in your county, state, or region, and then focus in on tasting the wines from the nearest vineyards (backyard or commercial) to see who is making the best juice. Ask the owners of that vineyard to dinner, ply them with delicious things and gifts until they like you enough to divulge their viticultural secrets. What clone/rootstock combination is their favorite? What were their best choices and worst mistakes? Which pests are an issue and what are their best suggestions for management? Taste as many local wines as possible, with and without food, and then make an educated decision on what you want to plant. Also, check with the local agricultural extension agent, who may be able to point you in the right direction. In the situation where there are no vineyards or wineries within a few hundred miles, try to research if folks have tried and failed to grow good wine there, or whether it has never been attempted. There’s likely good rationale for both — so beware being the trailblazer or the miracle-worker unless you are totally cool with the strong possibility of failure.

2. Check your options at your preferred grapevine nursery, and make them earn your business. With the recent fires in Napa and Sonoma, California, grapevine nurseries will be getting larger orders this year and may be a bit busier than the past few seasons. That said, many grapevine nurseries are still more than willing to take on smaller projects for supplying vines and giving some advice. Nursery personnel should be your top source of local information, rootstock options, planting prep, and instructions for getting the vines in the ground and growing. A few suggested questions for your nursery:

• What clonal/rootstock combos have had the best success for making commercial wine in my region?

• What varietals do you think would make great wine in my region that haven’t been planted widely?

• If I love (Pinot Noir, Cabernet, Grenache, etc.), what would the nursery recommend (as far as a clone) for the best match stylistically for a varietal/clone/rootstock combo that will thrive in my backyard?

3. Moment of silence, and then plant that vineyard! Once the ground has been prepped, the watering system installed and checked, the trellis sized and installed, the wires strung and taut, it’s time to grab that post-hole digger and start putting those vines in the ground. Use the nursery’s planting and care instructions, and if you need more guidance, check some of my older articles on planting and care of a young vineyard, conveniently put together in WineMaker’s Guide to Growing Grapes, which is the best $7 you will ever spend!

Regardless of my philosophical belief that clones/cultivars are seriously slowing the development of an authentic American wine culture, I’m the first to admit that you have to choose something on the nursery’s menu to order and plant to make wine in your backyard. The first responsibility of a good viticulturist is to study, prep, order, plant, and grow the vines that will produce the best wine for your palate. As in all things, balance is the key. Learn what your neighbors grow, taste it, and make a plan. But if you have a strong belief and passion that you can change the world and grow Pinot Noir on Long Island — go for it. Life’s too short not to take chances, but sometimes so short that we shouldn’t.