When little Dolly the sheep appeared 13 years ago, the success of her sci-fi breeding disconcerted much of the world and 'clone' became an unsettling word; something to be viewed with suspicion. Even today, when the word creeps into a conversation - say at a wine dinner - there's a flicker of discomfort among the non-winegeeks.
Yet, almost all grapes varieties have clones and winemakers speak about their array of clones or 'clonal selections' in caressing, even reverent tones. Thousands of vineyards have been established on cloning, which in viticultural terms means taking cuttings or buds from a 'mother vine'. Winemakers note which of their vines produce the finest fruit and snip cuttings to propagate more vines with the same favourable characteristics.
Grape vines are a promiscuous bunch and have a tendency to mutate, often in an effort to adapt to a new environment or an unusual series of climatic conditions. Some varieties, such as pinot noir, have looser morals than others and it is estimated there are more than 1,000 mutations. There are more than 45 pinot noir variants registered in Dijon, in France's Burgundy region, alone. By comparison, cabernet sauvignon has only 19 documented clonal variants. Mostly, clones retain enough similarity to their parent vines that they retain their names but some older varieties have mutated so significantly that they are ascribed nicknames. In Spain's Catalan region, classic grenache is known as garnatxa fina but its hirsute clonal variant has been dubbed 'hairy grenache'. In Tuscany, there is sangiovese grosso, sangiovese piccolo and a variant so significantly different that it has assumed its own name: brunello.
Sources of vines are strictly controlled through university- or government-sanctioned nursery programmes to prevent the spread of vine disease. Until recently, many vineyard plantings in new world regions were based on a single mother cutting propagated by a government-certified nursery. The mother vines weren't necessarily selected for flavour or quality characteristics but often for pragmatic reasons such as resistance to extreme temperatures or reliably high yields. South Africa is still trying to recover from the poor clonal choices dispersed during the apartheid period.
Clones gained some of their mystique between the 1960s and 80s when quality-conscious growers began to take matters into their own hands, pockets and baggage. An era of 'suitcase smuggling' evolved and anecdotes abound of winemakers stuffing vine cuttings from Hermitage or La Tache into their underwear to propagate what they viewed as superior clones, with a hopeful 'what works for the Domaine Romanee Conti, should work for me' attitude. No one knows for sure to what extent the 'midnight vineyard supply' stories are true as few vine pirates will admit to it (for legal reasons) and the European vineyard owners that either willingly or unknowingly turned a blind eye aren't likely to consider a new world affiliation something to shout about.
While international vine services caught on to the problem, it took years for them to cultivate a diverse list of certifiable, virus- free clonal selections. Vine cuttings can be imported legally into wine regions but the quarantine period can easily take five to 10 years, during which time the cuttings are inspected and treated for diseases and propagated under controlled conditions. These days, when a winemaker proudly speaks about their clonal selections, they are indicating that variants and mutations, either carefully managed in disparate plots or the latest trend - willy-nilly field blends - have created a wine that is of superior quality. 'Field blends', 'field mixes' or clones are becoming so popular that some nurseries are supplying packages of mixed clone cuttings for planting.
Producers working with a highly mutable variety such as pinot noir will proudly role-call the registered clone numbers used in their wines. The French are less interested in clones than new world producers because, in their view, it is the soil that matters, not the individual vine selection. So they say, but ask a good Burgundian grower and they will immediately point out their best vines - all surrogate mothers in their private replanting programmes.
Debra Meiburg is a master of wine