Does It Matter?

A bunch of Sangiovese grapes.

Alessandro came to the vineyard barefoot and walked up and down the rows of decades-old vines with me, tasting grapes the way the pros do, munching and then spitting out the skin. It was mid-September, a few days before the harvest, and we were trying to decide which vines to clone based on how evenly ripe their grapes were, how complex their taste was and, finally, how vigorous their vegetation.

I had mapped the thousand or so vines in the vineyard over the course of the prior few months, identifying the grape type from the length and color of the shoots—reddish, yellow, or pure green–and from the shape and texture of the leaves—fuzzy or smooth, with flat or protruding veins, deep or shallow lobes, etc. There are Trebbiano and Malvasia (white grapes historically used to make sweet wine), Canaiolo, a generous, rustic red grape, and even a few Moscato Nero, all of which I sell. The remaining 70% is Sangiovese, which I keep to make my wine.

Some of the Sangiovese plants in my vineyard looked typical: glossy, bright green leaves and bunches of grapes in the shape of a G clef, the tapering “tail” of grapes dangling from the horizontal “shoulder.” Others were delightfully strange—fist-size oval bunches of black-blue grapes arrayed closely along a short shoot—and recognisable as Sangiovese only by the tell-tale sweet-and-sour taste, a harbinger of the mouthwatering finish common in the best Sangiovese wines. Tasting grapes from vine after vine along the row, the most concentrated ones stood out—grapes with a particular intensity and singularity of flavor. Alessandro, whose family nursery near Bolzano has been producing young grape vines for estates all over Europe for three generations, sounded to me as if he too were encountering original variations on familiar flavors—“Hmm,” he mumbled, and “Interesting, very interesting,” or “This one is even better—taste it.”

Commercially, vines are propagated not from grape seeds, of course, but from cuttings: a seed would produce a plant genetically different from the vine that bore it, whereas cuttings give rise to a vine with a genome to its “parent’s”—a clone. Most vineyards today are planted with proven grape clones—clones of vines that have been selected over the years for higher yields or more resistance to disease, or because they flower later or ripen earlier. A handful of Sangiovese clones such as RL24 and CCL2000/4 make up a large proportion of all Sangiovese grown in Tuscany, such that how these clones grow and ripen is familiar to local viticulturalists, and the techniques for managing them in the vineyard are practically standardized. All of this bodes well for production volumes and overall quality, to the extent that Tuscan estates want to harvest healthy grapes with similar characteristics year in and year out. I wondered, though, whether some clones—some versions of Sangiovese—might be more delicious or more expressive of the site they are grown on than others. What was, I wanted to know, the clone’s contribution to the taste of a wine?

I called some nurseries to find out, asking, “How does the clone affect the taste of a wine?” I explained the wine characteristics that I prized—delicacy, subtlety, complexity; a vibrant tanginess and a fine-grained, smooth texture. Which clones foster those qualities? I asked.

“Quality wineries use F9A548 or CCL 2000/4,” I was told by one nursery and “Agri45 and CCL 2000/3 perform best,” by another. Yet another recommended clones they had developed in house, which offered “medium yields and high quality.” Some clones had less compact bunches, it was explained, other clones smaller or more ovoid grapes. One clone, I was promised, managed to ripen even the grapes in the center of the bunch, although the problem of unripe grapes on an otherwise ripe bunch is normally resolved simply by lowering yields. Try as I did, my interlocutors veered away from questions of aromatics, flavors and texture, emphasising a clone’s popularity, productivity or precocious ripening. I even came across a recent study of Sangiovese clones that noted their relative dry extract and anthocyanin content–two parameters quality winemakers stopped caring about in the 1980s. As often as I had heard about the importance of clones–how “bad” the clones planted in the 1960s or ’70s or ’80s were, for example, how pivotal the selection of the “right” clone was in making good wine, no one I spoke with could articulate the direct impact of clone on flavor. And so I started to wonder if clone, like so many other aspects of grape production and winemaking touted for their significance, isn’t that important.

I tied bows made from strips of old sheets around the vines the grapes of which Alessandro and I liked best—two dozen Sangioveses that seemed the most delicious to us. When we pruned the following winter, I gathered the cuttings from those vines, labelled each bunch according to the vine they came from and sent them to Alessandro’s nursery in Bolzano for reproduction. Now, a year later, Alessandro has brought me the clones, 30 or forty from each bunch of cuttings, reproduced and grafted onto the rootstock we deemed best for the type of soil I have. He pulled into the driveway and jumped down from his truck, barefoot, to give me a box of new, old vines, that I’m busy planting by hand and numbering, according to their “parent,” so that maybe I can see for myself in a few years the impact of clone on wine.

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