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What is a Grape Clone?

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Grape clones. In the world of wine, this is where science, tradition, and innovation intersect to shape the flavors in your wine glass. In the realm of viticulture, grape clones are the unsung heroes responsible for the diverse array of tastes and aromas that tantalize your palates. As we delve into this fascinating subject, we will uncover the secrets behind grape clones – their origins, significance, and the pivotal role they play in crafting wines that range from the familiar to the extraordinary. Join us as we uncork the bottle on this intriguing topic and sip from the fountain of knowledge that flows through the vineyards of viticulture.

Not all fruit is created equal when it comes to the world of grape varieties. Even if you aren’t an avid wine drinker, you’ve probably heard the word “clone” used when winemakers describe what variety was used to make the wine. According to a 2016 blog from VinePair, the best way to understand grape clones is to understand what purpose they ultimately serve. When it comes to reproducing, most plants do it through a combination of genetic material from two parent plants. This is similar when it comes to grapevines.

But, if you’re a winemaker and you are wanting to preserve the characteristics of a grape variety, the reproduction process is called cloning. This is when a piece of the “mother vine” is cut off and is either planted directly into the soil or grafted onto another wine. Since there is only one “parent,” the new vine will theoretically have the same genetic content.

Over time, spontaneous mutations will accumulate in the DNA of the grape vines of each variety. This often happens in vines that are out in a field in very sunny climates and exposed to a lot of solar radiation. While most of them will be invisible, some can be both visible and desirable. When it is time to propagate the vines, some might be better than others because of the subtle genetic differences. This is the sort of selection that results in a new clone of the variety.

Experts explain that clonal differences reflect nothing more than differing levels of virus infections or perhaps epigenetic differences, which are heritable changes that aren’t based on DNA sequence changes. Some people may think that the accumulation of mutations produces a new grape variety, but it actually doesn’t. The most common grape variety to have several different clones is Pinot Noir.

Pinot Noir Clonal Selection

The official French clonal selection of Pinot Noir started in the 1950s when the climate was cooler. Wine Enthusiast explains growers in that time needed to ensure the grapes would ripen sufficiently so traits like good sugar accumulation and early ripening were selected.

German growers tended to prioritize Pinot Noir clones that grew looser bunches on the vine due to that fruit being less susceptible to botrytis rot. But by the late 1980s and 1990s, both French and German selections focused on aromatic intensity alongside previously selected traits. 

1971 is when the first official French clones of Pinot Noir were released. These were numbered 111 to 115. Collectively, the group of clones released between 1971 and the late 1980s are known as “Dijon clones,” after the French town in Burgundy. Since being available in the U.S. since 1987, Dijon clones are now licensed to be used worldwide. 

In just about every grape variety, there are different clones. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Sauvignon are three of the most planted varieties with clones. Since there are thousands of clones available to winemakers, many factors affect what gets planted in a vineyard.

In total, our vineyard crew manages roughly 40 different clones within our vineyards on the Leelanau Peninsula. When it comes to Pinot Noir clones, we have approximately 8 different clones. We have about 5 different clones of Chardonnay within our vineyards. Our 2021 Barrel Fermented Chardonnay is produced using a clone known as Dijon Clone 96. The 2020 Pinot Noir is a mix of 85% Clone 115 and 15% Clone 777.

In the world of viticulture, the intricate realm of grape clones unveils a tapestry of diversity and innovation. As we’ve explored the fascinating journey from traditional propagation methods to the modern science of clone selection, it’s evident that grape clones are far more than mere duplicates – they are the embodiment of centuries of craftsmanship and the driving force behind the finest wines we savor today. From enhancing disease resistance to adapting the changing climates, these genetic variations offer a roadmap for sustainable and resilient vineyards. As we raise our glasses to the myriad flavors and aromas these clones give us, let us also toast to the ongoing research and dedication that ensure the legacy of grape clones continues to flourish, enriching the world of wine for generations to come.

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