They say that imitation is the greatest form of flattery; if that’s true, then the wine industry is one saturated with flattery. Wine clones may sound like something out of a boozy horror movie but they’re an established part of the wine world – and probably something you’re drinking on a daily basis.
How do you clone wine?
When someone hears they’re drinking a clone, it’s not uncommon to think you’re getting the knock-off version of Pinot Noir. Let’s take a step back. Wine cloning isn’t about quality necessarily: it’s a way for growers to have control over the vines they’re nurturing, finding the right version of a grape that will meet their needs.
Traditionally, grapes reproduce the old-fashioned way: genetic material from a father plant joins with the genetic material of a mother plant (thanks, literally, to the birds and the bees). A baby vine is born. However, many winemakers may want to take advantage of a particular variety’s characteristic, like how disease resistant it is, or its aroma or flavor, and that’s where cloning comes in.
The official definition of a clone is a plant that is genetically identical to the first. Pinot Noir, for instance, one of the oldest grapes, has hundreds of different types of clones that all boast their own personalities and properties. As you might have guessed, things don’t always work out that neatly, with mutations resulting from genetic or environmental influences, often introducing us to new varieties of grapes.
Cloning is not to be confused with crosses or hybrids. Crosses originate when a vine’s parents are two different varieties of the same species, usually due to cross-pollination, although Germany and South Africa are renowned for their man-made crosses. One of the category’s most notable members is Cabernet Sauvignon, a cross between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. Hybrids, on the other hand, are combinations of two different species. Like cloning, this often is done to make a grape more resistant to disease.
There are a lot of clones to wade through, so if you want to sound like you know what you’re talking about, Pinot Noir 777, clone 6 for Cabernet Sauvignon, and Dijon for Chardonnay are current favorites. Don’t just take my word for it: the next time you find a bottle of wine you particularly like, take note of the clone, or combination of clones, used.
However, grapes aren’t the only aspect of the winemaking process undergoing experimentation. Yeast is now being genetically manufactured to meet the needs of winemakers and potentially customize flavors.
Forget the bag – yeast is now designer
Yeast is a critical aspect of the fermentation process, consuming the sugar in the grapes and turning it into alcohol – bad yeast means a stuck fermentation and winemakers in trouble (although there is one happy story: this was what led to the birth of White Zinfandel in 1975). In the past few decades, winemakers have been designing their own yeast to ensure that all sugars will be converted to alcohol. While some herald it as a way to ensure flavor and consistency, others worry this will crowd shelves with manufactured wine, rather than the natural stuff we all love.
The trend has only increased, with scientists creating a yeast that’s 100% manufactured. While this has mainly been to study DNA, it could provide more control over wine flavors in the future. That is, if you prefer your favorite notes made in a lab, rather than nurtured on the vine.