What the Heck is a Clone?

Question from Mark: A friend gave me a bottle of red wine that says Clone 337. What is it? It sounds like some kind of genetic engineering.

Reply: Hi, Mark. Thanks for writing. The word “clone” is accurate but, unfortunately, scary sounding. There’s no Dolly the Sheep thing going on here or genetic modification. In fact, when it comes to wine, cloning is quite natural and has been going on, on an informal basis, for quite a long time. 

Science tells us that everything that lives, mutates (another scary word) which means that it’s subject to natural, genetic change. The freedictionary.com defines it as “A change of the DNA sequence within a gene or chromosome of an organism resulting in the creation of a new character or trait not found in the parental type.” 

As time passes, the likelihood of mutation increases, which explains why clonal selection of Pinot Noir is a hot topic – it’s one of the oldest varieties we know and mutates quite readily. If you had an eighty-year-old Pinot Noir vineyard that was all the same clone to begin with, chances are you’ve got a few different versions out there by now.

Long before we had Petri dishes or DNA analysis, farmers began taking plant material from the best vines in their vineyards and using them for propagation (new plantings need to be cuttings, not seeds). They looked for vines that demonstrated attributes such as disease resistance, drought resistance, large production or anything else you might think of, depending upon the situation.

In the 20th century, the process was formalized in France and Germany with elaborate field trials that take years before a new clone is made available for commercial propagation and use. And, these days, it’s done with aesthetic ideas in mind in addition to the practical attributes. For instance, small-berried clones give the wine more color and flavor intensity, so they’re very much in fashion right now.

When there are multiple clones of a variety available, winemakers often decide to plant a few that are best suited to their site rather than just one – even if it’s a “rock-star” clone –  because using more than one clone gives the wine added complexity, in much the same way that blending different varieties together adds to complexity.

TRIVIA! Two different clones of a given variety have the same DNA, which means that Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris (Or Pinot Grigio, if you prefer) have the same DNA. Yet, they look quite different and, obviously, make rather different wines. 

Since your bottle mentioned clone 337, it’s either Cabernet Sauvignon or there’s some Cab in it. The producer took up valuable space on the label confusing almost anyone who isn’t a total wine geek, presumably, because he hopes that clone 337 is a good selling point – it’s one of those rock-star clones – small berries, great skin-to-juice ratio, rich black fruit – very in and groovy. 

So, you’ve probably got a pretty nice bottle of wine, there! Enjoy!

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