What is a "clone" of a grape?

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Dear Dr. Vinny,

I’ve been reading about one of my favorite Pinot Noirs, and it looks like they stem from “clones,” like 776, 777 and so on. What does this all mean? Are they of lower quality?

—Jonah, Los Angeles

Dear Jonah,

Discussions about clones of grapes don’t have to do with lower quality at all, but about finding the right version of a grape to fit the right site and the right wine. If a cutting or bud of a “mother” plant or vine is taken, it’s considered a clone, a second plant that will be genetically identical to the first. The older a grape variety, the more clones there will be. Pinot Noir is one of the oldest varieties, and it has dozens of clones.

Why clone? Grapegrowers find a vine with a specific trait they want to replicate. It could be, say, resistance to fungus, desired berry or cluster size, a particular crop load, or earlier ripening. Sometimes there’s a particular flavor or aroma that a clone tries to capture. Plus, there are all kinds of differences in individual plants because of naturally occurring mutations in grapevines.

When winemakers talk about distinctive clones, I always think it’s a good thing. Sometimes a wine will be a blend of multiple clones, which might indicate a level of complexity. A single vineyard might be planted to different clones in the smaller parcels of which it is comprised. Or, a wine may be a reflection of a single clone grown on a single site.

Some designer clones out there are the Pinot Noir 777, clone 6 for Cabernet and Dijon for Chardonnay. Even if you don’t know “clone 777” from “Attack of the Clones,” I think the message from winemakers is that they’re paying attention to all the details, even down to the vine.

—Dr. Vinny

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