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Send in the Clones

Finger Lakes Winery brings a new clone of Riesling to New York, potentially streamlining rules for future imports

Lynn Alley
Posted: November 13, 2008

In the winter of 2004, Willy Frank, president of Dr. Konstantin Frank's Vinifera Wine Cellars, was confronted with a lot of dead Riesling vines. Every few years, New York's Finger Lakes are hit with a frost, which can damage or even kill vines. The frost in 2004 was one of the worst ever, killing scores of Riesling and Gewürztraminer vines, even in the warmest parts of the wine region. But Frank, whose father Konstantin was a pioneer in the region when he opened the winery in 1962, noticed that certain Riesling vines survived where others died. They were all a particular clone, imported decades earlier from Germany.

What happened next was a four-year effort to bring in more of this German Riesling clone. Vine clones are a rather eclectic topic, but the type of clones used in a vineyard can have an enormous influence on wine flavors. American vintners have spent decades trying to find the right clones for their terroirs. But importing foreign plant material, which could be infected with viruses, parasites or other pathogens, is highly regulated by the United States government. In the past, importation has been a long and arduous process. Thanks to the Franks' efforts, and work by the USDA and researchers at Cornell University, those procedures may soon be streamlined, which will lead to new clone imports and better wines.

Back in 2004, Fred Frank, Willy's son, recognized the hardy clone as N90, first designated as a superior clone by German researchers in 1913. Fred studied at Germany's Geisenheim viticultural research institute. "In Germany, I had worked in the micro-vinification lab at Geisenheim," Frank said. "I had actually tasted the difference between wines made from different clones of Riesling. Even then, I walked away knowing that N90 was my favorite."

N90 has long been a staple of German vineyards. Based on years of experimentation, the clone has proven itself to be more aromatic than other Riesling clones. It's also more cold tolerant and possesses greater resistance to disease than other more commonly used Riesling clones in the Finger Lakes.

Willy called Matthias Zink, manager at Germany's vine nursery in Neustadt and former vineyard manager at Dr. Frank's. They discussed importing a large number of certified N90 vines from Neustadt to the Finger Lakes to repopulate Frank's vineyards.

Typically, vine cuttings are imported in very limited quantities, often only two or three cuttings from any given vine, which are then subjected to a long period of testing for disease under the supervision of a plant pathologist, sometimes for as long as five or six years, before they can be propagated and made available to American growers. The process is long and often costly, and the hassle involved has given rise to a host of illegal and sometimes infamous importations of vine cuttings, often referred to as "midnight vineyard supply" or "suitcase clones."

Tales of suitcase clones snuck out of the greatest vineyards of Europe are as old as the American wine industry. A few of them may be true. But there is a problem with these contraband cuttings. "We do know that grapevine viruses have come in over the past 20 or 30 years," said Alan Green, executive director of the USDA plant quarantine programs. "And we can say with almost certainty that they have come in on suitcase importations."

Dr. Frank's was asking to import more than a thousand already rooted vines on a streamlined procedure. Thankfully, Green said his agency has long been looking for a way to cut down on the illegal importation of vines by overhauling quarantine laws. In 2005, Marc Fuchs, assistant professor of plant pathology at Cornell University and director of Cornell's importation and certification program, traveled to Germany, and with USDA approval brought back cuttings of N90 from the Neustadt station. He tested them at Cornell's Geneva Agricultural Experiment Station and reported to federal and state authorities that they were virus free.

In June 2006, almost 1,500 vines were imported and planted in a vineyard, which was 400 yards away from any other vines. Fuchs inspected the vines twice a year, looking for any signs of viruses or disease.

Last month, the quarantine was lifted, and Fred and various state and federal officials cut a ribbon celebrating the release of the clones into the U.S. market. Frank will begin planting N90 vines soon, and will sell vines to other growers. Frank also said that the newly released vines may eventually provide fruit for a single-vineyard bottling. Sadly, his father Willy was not there for the ribbon cutting, having passed away in 2006. But his initiative may help improve the quality of Finger Lakes Rieslings for years to come.

And what does this experiment mean for consumers? Green now believes the USDA will develop new, streamlined importation procedures for other clones. "I would say within months," said Green. "We'll try to put out some sort of guidelines or criteria. We want to start slowly and safely, perhaps with pilot-type efforts, but we want to get moving." That means better clones and better wines.

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