Are You Drinking “Cloned” Wine?

Annapolis, MD

40 years ago, in the dead of night, a thief stole Burgundy’s greatest wine secret.

Sneaking onto a vineyard on a moonless night, an American named Gary is said to have crouched down by a pinot noir vine, clipped a few branches, wrapped them in a damp rag and stuffed them into a Samsonite briefcase.

Thus it was that the “suitcase clones” came to California – a piece of Burgundy illegally smuggled thousands of miles.

Pinot Noir – more so than Syrah or Cabernet Sauvignon – is genetically unstable and far more susceptible to genetic mutation than other vines. The result is that when Pinot Noir is allowed replicate naturally – with two vines each contributing genetic material to form a new baby vine – hundreds of varieties can emerge in a single area, making for unpredictable flavors and yields.

For the Californian wine industry, born in the labs of University of California at Davis, the uncertainty of natural selection proved at odds with their tightly controlled, scientific approach. Why trust nature when you can just clone the exact vine with the exact yield you want?

The first European clones to become popular were the “Pommard,” cloned (legitimately) from Burgundy’s Chateau Pommard, and the “Wadenswill,” cloned from a Swiss vine that was itself taken from France by Swiss mercenaries in the 1400s.

Today, nary a bottle of California Pinot Noir does NOT come from cloned vines. Some wineries have even begun to indicate the precise clone used – typically a Pommard or Dijon 115, the clone behind many an award-winning Pinot Noir.

Of course, it wasn’t long before someone had the bright idea of making illicit clones of Burgundy’s most celebrated vines. So-called “heritage” clones – also known as “suitcase” or “Samsonite” clones, began to surface as a way to replicate Burgundy’s best vintages here in the US. Be on the lookout whenever you see any of those words on a wine bottle (“clone 828” has also been used)… you may just be about to taste a bit of history.

That’s all for this week!