Clone vs. Site: Which Is More Important?


Yesterday my friend Daniel Dycus recounted a conversation he had the other day with a certified sommelier. Daniel told this fellow he thought grape clone was at least as important as site in determining the characteristics of a wine. The somm told Daniel that he would “sound like an idiot if he said that to someone who knows anything about wine.” Well, Daniel was not sounding like an idiot, because this somm doesn’t know diddly about clones, at the very least.

Simply put, in my experience, clone often trumps site—especially when it comes to Pinot Noir. For example we recently had the experience of moving cuttings from a vineyard in Napa Valley (near Coombsville) to our vineyard in Sonoma Valley (near Santa Rosa). Different soil, different climate, different rootstock, different vine spacing, different trellising, different farming—and yet the wine we have made from this block is recognizably more similar to the wine we made from the older Coombsville site than it is to the wine we make from the Dijon clones of Pinot grown at our site. For that matter, there are reproducible differences between the wines we make from the Dijon clones we grow at our site, differences that I recognize in wines made from the same clones grown at other sites.

That Daniel’s somm friend gets it so wrong is emblematic of a larger issue: a total misconstruction by the supposed cognoscenti of what is meant by terroir. This somm along with scads and scads of other “experts” has been taught that terroir is all about location, location, location. It’s not, and never has been, even in Burgundy.

38 thoughts on “Clone vs. Site: Which Is More Important?

  1. Thomas Pellechia

    Hah!

    One of the misconceptions about Konstantin Frank’s work in the Finger Lakes is that he uncovered how to grow Vitis vinifera in an area with extreme winter temperatures.

    He did, but he also stressed that winter wasn’t the main problem–disease was.

    To handle each problem, he said, cloning was the answer…and so, he established a nursery and he cloned away so that his vines would survive and produce distinctive wines, so much so that many who taste our local vinifera wines, whether they like them or not, quickly identify that they are unique to the area.

    Reply
    1. John M. Kelly Post author

      Imagine that! Making clonal selections with an eye towards finding what works best in a particular region. Just like they do in Burgundy! Compared to that, what happens in the fine wine growing regions of California, Oregon and Washington is haphazard. For the most part we are selecting from clones that have been developed to suit other regions.

      Reply
      1. Thomas Pellechia Post author

        To Chris: yeah, and I must have failed at it.

        Essentially, the discussion is about absolutes. All too often, it’s much easier to believe in an absolute than it is to keep studying. If there’s anything absolute about the subject of farming in general, grape farming in specific, it’s that without constant study you can’t learn what more there is to learn.

        So, you get a certificate, stop studying and then find yourself in a position that has you making claims twenty years after they have been disputed.

        Reply
  2. SUAMW

    Misconstruction? How about ignorance and lack of competence in an area which one is certified. Which begs the question whether the material and skills required for a certificate are valid….

    Reply
    1. Lily-Elaine Hawk Wakawaka

      I’m with you on being committed to competence.

      It’s also clear though that the problem with this story is more about a Sommelier misbehaving by being arrogant, rather than whether they have properly earned the title. That is, why should we think a Somm should know ANYTHING about clones? The Sommelier’s job is defined by being of good service. Their appropriate knowledge in relation to the title or certification is in relation to a general knowledge of various *wines* from around the world, rather than the technical practices of producing those wines. A good Sommelier needs to know about wine to the extent it will help him or her help a customer select the right bottle for that customer’s meal. So, the problem here is not whether the Sommelier certification (or earning the position through good work and knowledge) should demand the kind of esoteric (and wonderfully interesting) knowledge mentioned in this post. The problem here seems to me more that, as described, this Sommelier was just being an arrogant ass pretending to know more than he did.

      Reply
      1. John M. Kelly Post author

        LEHW – thanks for weighing in. While he may have been condescending, I don’t think the somm in this case was being arrogant or pretending superior knowledge. I understand the context was a conversation among acquaintances rather than a service situation. I believe the problem lies in what the somm—and by extension, most wine enthusiasts—are taught to think of as the importance of site. After years of frustration I have declared war on the misconception that terroir is all down to soil and weather.

        Reply
  3. Nathan

    I think the proper answer is ‘it depends.’ Suppose one’s cuttings are a really wack, individualistic selection. Or perhaps they have a virus that leaves a strong mark on the finished wines.

    In our situation, position in the vineyard is way more important than clone. Exposure to light, degree of slope, vigor of soil all trump clone, and we have some wildly varying selections that should not be anything alike (23, 115, 2A)

    Reply
    1. John M. Kelly Post author

      Nathan – IMO the proper answer is always “it depends.” First let me stipulate that I tend to use “clone” and “selection” interchangeably—technically sloppy. We have 9 blocks of Pinot at our site, two of which are properly selection massale. We have moderate vigor—the soils are rocky and well-drained, but deep. There are differences in aspect and exposure, and pockets within blocks that show variation in growth and grape flavor, but unequivocally the differences between the wines are due to selection. Also the wines have characteristics that are recognizable as similar to those of wines made by different winemakers from the same selections grown at other sites.

      I once worked at a place that had nearly 1,000 acres of clone 4,5 Chardonnay on AxR planted in four distinct locations, in hundreds of different blocks. No question there were differences between the wines made from the different locations. However those site-dependent differences paled in comparison to the differences we discovered between clone 4,5 on AxR and clones 15, 76, 95 and 96 on 3309, 101-14, 420A, 110R and 1103P. Even the rootstocks made bigger differences than site.

      Your situation is clearly different, as expected when the site shows geographic extremes. If you have not come across Randall Grahm’s exposition of Mission grapes grown on the Canary Islands it is enlightening.

      My assertion is that the cases where site makes a bigger difference than vine selection are relatively rare.

      Reply
  4. FM

    So, in making the argument that Clone is “more important” than site I invite you to plant some clones in a swamp and see how good that site does for your clones. Probably not too well, but Clone 23 might do better in site A versus Site B and for sure both A&B will be better than Swampland Vineyards in Marshland AVA.

    Reply
    1. John M. Kelly Post author

      Your swampland argument is specious. Let’s keep the conversation focused on real-world vineyard practice.

      Reply
  5. Donn Rutkoff

    Has anyone determined if clones have different dna or a genetic difference? The recent hoohah against GMO foods which I think is an un-informed bit of scare, runs up against the fact that virtually all the fruit and veggie we eat today are genetically modified from their ancestors. And in the wine world, growers and makers pay a lot of attention to trying to identify changes in their vines and berries and propagate the changes that taste better.

    And as far as somm knowledge: I have found that the more grape science I learn, the better I am at selling wine (retail) and explaining to my customers why they like or don’t like any given wine, and how food matching works, and so forth. If a somm knows that Cab A is grown in a way that lowers skin thickness, or is made with less maceration, hence less tannic, he is a better somm.

    Reply
  6. Jerry D. Murray

    Let me throw this hand grenade out there. Perhaps your Sonoma site still isn’t marginal enough to make site more important?

    I suspect that it is only on the climactic margins of a varietal that clone becomes less important than site. If a region has more than ample conditions to ripen a crop why would site be so important? Only in the extremes of the margin does a degree or two, or an extra twenty five minutes of sun light matter. When the vine has abundant sun and heat; what differences does site make?

    I think here in Oregon we less of a clonal identity than they do in CA precisely because, being on the margin, site become more important.

    If site isn’t a factor it should be safe to assume that clone should be one of the key variables that influence a wine.

    In europe regions are known for specific varietals precisely because they thrive in that climate. I also don’t think it is a coincidence that those regions also emphasize place. Plant Pinot Noir in the languedoc and no one will talk about the differences between this parcel and that parcel. The climate wouldn’t limit ripening enough to make the small differences in site relevant. Perhaps the same could be said about your situation?

    Reply
    1. John M. Kelly Post author

      Jerry – you get my point exactly—the site really needs to be marginal to make as much of a difference as the vine selection. I’ll toss that hand grenade back and say that the clonal trials I have tasted from Oregon as well as from Burgundy have shown pretty impressive differences between vine material. As an example, clone 115 grown in NSG does taste different than 115 grown in Volnay, but not as different from each other as 943 grown in Volnay from 115 grown in Volnay. My understanding is that this has the Burgundians so worried that they are studying clonal mixes matched to soil types in an effort to move attention back to place—in effect, a return to the principles of selection massale.

      What do you think of the idea that factors related to site can intensify the differences between clones/selections?

      Reply
  7. Seth M. Long

    It sounds as if the Somm in question is suffering from a serious case of dogmaitis, which pervades this industry, more so now that anyone with an internet connection can become a wine expert. Once you get a bit of knowledge, it’s tough not to go there…

    I have spent many nights with wine writers, winemakers, somms, viticulturalists, burning countless bottles debating this very topic. (Elaine, how many bottles, until what time in the morning :-)?) We all seek definitive answers but consensus is usually many shades of grey/gray: Clones matter. Site matters. Irrigation (or lack thereof) matters. Vine density matters. Vintage matters. Farming practices matter. Picking decisions matter. Yeast matters. Fermentation dynamics matter. Additives/fermentation vessel/extraction style matters. Press cycles matter. Barrels matter. Temperature of cellar matters. Redox potential matters. Topping wine matters. Etcetera. Is it possible to truly parse it out? Here is a theory that supports your premise: the advent of acres and acres and blocks and blocks of Dijon clonal material accounts for said lack of site character in most Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Thoughts?

    Reply
    1. John M. Kelly Post author

      Seth – Let’s say it was probably a case of “lack-of-experience-itis” rather than dogamatitis. I’m not bashing somms or somm credentialing in this piece—my concern is that “terroir” is most often taught as being all about location.

      If your a priori assumption is that vineyard location is the most important factor in defining wine character, you will approach your study of wine through that particular lens. It’s sort of like an entire subset of wine enthusiasts who have been taught to think that wine is only worth drinking if it tastes like a Parker95+™ example—it’s a simplistic and unsubtle view, in my opinion.

      Everything that you list above as something that “matters”? That is all part and parcel of terroir. But it is not all of it. The cultural weltanschauung, including the historical context, of a place and the people who grow grapes, make wine, cook food, and consume in that place are equally a part. I’ll quibble with Jerry Murray’s statement that “[i]n europe regions are known for specific varietals precisely because they thrive in that climate.” The wines grown in a particular place in the old world co-evolved over history with the culture and cuisine of that place. I may have missed something but I have never seen any scholarship suggesting that Pinot was planted in Bordeaux, Cabernet in Burgundy, or Riesling in the Rhône. It seems to me that the feudal society and the dictates of monarchs and the Church prevented it, much as the AOC does today.

      I’m only partially in agreement that the planting of Dijon clonal material in regions outside Burgundy has masked site character. The site “markers” are just different with Dijon clones than they are with heritage selections. I believe that in our climate Dijon clones do present unique farming challenges that have yet to be fully appreciated, much less grappled with.

      Reply
    1. John M. Kelly Post author

      Yeah, Cassiopeia is four Pinot clones from the Wetzel Vineyard (Mendocino) bottled separately and sold in a 6-pack with 2 bottles of the clonal blend. I think the individual clonal bottlings are sold out, though Bi-Rite may still have some. K&L is only selling the blend. Thackrey probably has individual clones in barrels if you get a chance to go taste with him—that’s kind of SOP for smaller wineries.

      Reply
  8. John M. Kelly Post author

    Time for another hand grenade: Want to really mess with the characteristic terroir of a site? Switch to biodynamic farming. Or lay down a big biochar amendment.

    Reply
    1. John M. Kelly Post author

      @RG: “I would argue that the addition of biochar is a benign intervention, as it serves to essentially amplify the signal, as it were, of the terroir that is already there; it’s not adding new nutrients or oligo-elements to the soil, but rather allowing the plants to more efficiently take up the existing elements.”

      In science we call this kind of groundless assertion “pre-selection bias.”

      I’m not sure how biochar would “amplify a signal” of any sort. Biochar has a very high pH, and a high cation exchange capacity. It also holds copious amounts of water, and can be readily colonized by bacteria and fungi. I’m not suggesting any of these things are necessarily bad, but “benign” is not a word I would use to describe them, especially with respect to how a soil influences the character of a particular wine. Soil amended with biochar is not the soil it was before, by a long shot.

      Reply
  9. dr

    Talk of signal amplification makes me cringe a bit.
    Even if it’s used as a metaphor, it’s not at all clear to me what the metaphor is meant to describe. It implies an invariant characteristic of a specific place, which imparts a uniqueness which can be dissociated from all other variables present in the production of a wine.
    This seems like a very large claim (and one which seems somewhat at odds with his biochar argument and other arguments about farming).

    Reply
    1. John M. Kelly Post author

      I am a biochar enthusiast—I have posted about it before and have another post in draft that I will put up at some point. Biochar is cool. It’s what engineers would describe as an “elegant solution” to a number of problems, not the least related to decreasing the amount of carbon we dump to the atmosphere.

      Biochar impresses me as a useful amendment to vineyard soils before planting, as it could function as a reservoir for water and nutrients, and perhaps beneficial microflora (though I am concerend for the potential to host problematic microflora, such as Phytopthera). Smaller farming inputs—even passive ones like rainfall and nutrition derived from decomposition of detritus—could go farther in biochar-amended soil.

      What fascinates me is the dialectic it seems to me that you would have to engage in to convince yourself that terroir is some site-invariant characteristic AND that amending with biochar does not change the site. Citing “signal amplification” could be seen as a way out of that conundrum.

      Reply
      1. dr

        “Signal amplification” as stated by Mr. Grahm (for whom I bear no ill will and whose recent wines I actually quite like) is, to my mind, about as useful way out of that conundrum as positing a supreme being to explain a phenomena that you can’t yet explain scientifically. Which is to say it adds very little real value (though it may certainly add value for the individual positing it). It’s almost defeatist; as if to say “well, it’s outside of my current understanding and vocabulary, so I’ll just give it a name that resonates emotionally with me”. It’s a bit “pre-enlightenment”

        Reply
        1. John M. Kelly Post author

          I applaud Randall for taking the leap of faith. I’d like (and expect) to see controlled experiments at some point.

          What I’d also like to see, but don’t expect to, is an increased level of rationality and intellectual rigor on the topic of terroir. Acknowledge that terroir is not conferred simply by some privileged location, but only exists through the directed and concerted action of man.

          If we aren’t going to try to understand wine as more than the result of place, without delving into everything that defines a place, then terroir is just a fancy marketing term meant to gull the credulous into mystical—and misguided—thinking about what is, at the end of the day, a fairly common and ordinary beverage.

          Reply
  10. Tyler Thomas

    Hmmm, I’m glad I skimmed through the comments John because I was initially inclined to strongly disagree with you on this one. However I have a better and more nuanced view of your point thanks to the comment section.

    I think the issue could be a result of the range in clonal differences and the way we talk about clones. For example, I don’t think Dijon clones have a wide range of morphological or taste differences and yet we speak of 667 and 777 as if it is a titanic shift. In this case I think site would certainly trump clone.

    However if we spoke of clone 4 Chardonnay versus Wente we may have a different story. Two clones that at the same site show tremendous morphological and taste differences that it would be more difficult to determine how a change in site impacts the already wide discrepancies in clone. Clone 4 Chardonnay is one of the few clones I’ve worked with where there does seem to be a heavy dose of “cloneness” independent of site. Though even in those cases site impacts sugar accumulation rate, TAs at harvest, etc.

    Terroir expression in my opinion is essentially a plants physiological response to its environment (that’s what makes wine so cool, we get to taste that’s plants responses!). Clonal differences can represent somewhat significant genetic differences that could lead to different physiological responses to the same stimuli. However I still would weight the basic physiology of “vine” as greater than small genetic changes of “clone” in influencing how a wine ultimately tastes.

    Make any sense? Either way you have me thinking a bit differently about the issue and I appreciate that.

    Tyler

    Reply
    1. John M. Kelly Post author

      Tyler – we could anthropomorphize a little and call it the “nature” vs. “nurture” dichotomy. I agree that some clones yield wines that are virtually indistinguishable from each other when grown on the same site—pretty sure I won’t ever be able to distinguish Martini PN 13 from PN 15. In cases like that site trumps clone. So far I can reliably distinguish between 777 and 667 at our site, less so between 777 and 115. The 943 is a standout, as is our “HVS” selection massale from the Coombsville vineyard. As I mentioned in the original post, the HVS from our site is more like the wine that came from Coombsville than it is like the Dijon clone Pinot from our site.

      If that were a single data point it still would be nearly be QED in my mind, but wait there’s more. For example, in my experience clone 115 tastes pretty similar across sites, but to me 667 and 114 do not at all. Wente clone Chard tastes similar to me regardless where it comes from in California. Clone 548 chard tastes more different to me depending on where it comes from, but never tastes at all like Wente clone (within reason—Chard is still Chard, as Pinot is almost always Pinot).

      What do you think of the hypothesis that the more marginal the site, the more exaggerated these clonal differences are? That some clones are genetically predisposed to outperform others in more extreme environments? I’ve made a modest set of observations that suggests this might be true, contradicting the earlier statement by Jerry Murray. I am open to the suggestion that all bets are off once a site is so marginal that no clone of the variety in question will do well.

      Finally, what are your thoughts on my central thesis: that soil and weather are only the be-all, end-all of differentiating between wines when we, as winegrowers, make conscious decisions and take concerted actions to make it so?

      Reply
    1. John M. Kelly Post author

      “Minerality” is an entirely different can of worms, but I can live with Maltman’s statement: “Whatever minerality is, it is not the taste of vineyard minerals. The term minerality is now entrenched, so it’s too late to turn back the tide, but the term should be used as a metaphor, not as something directly derived from soil minerals where the vine is located.” As a metaphor, minerality is a signal that can be amplified.

      It’s good to see Andy Erickson talking about the “people aspects of terroir.” Echoes Seth Long’s list of things that matter in an earlier comment. Thanks for the link!

      Reply
  11. Pingback: Clone versus Site: Which is more important? | New World Winemaker Blog

  12. Tyler Thomas

    John, I was still thinking about this when I got home. While the marshland comment above is – as you pointed out – so unrealistic that it becomes a straw-man; perhaps there is a “macro” view that would suggest site over clone. Primarily, most of our clones come from France, but few of our wines taste like their french counterparts. This is particularly true of Burgundian clones. Even the lighter and more acidic CA Pinots are unmistakably Californian in my opinion. But wouldn’t that be less likely the case if clone trumped site?

    Tyler

    Reply
    1. John M. Kelly Post author

      Excellent point. I don’t often confuse Pinot from France, Central Coast, North Coast, Oregon or New Zealand with each other. Let’s say on the this level of scale that latitude sometimes trumps clone.

      I say sometimes because while I don’t often confuse wines from these locations, sometimes I do. I have tasted red Burgundy, especially from Mercurey, that I could mistake easily for Russian River, Pinot from Central Otago that I couldn’t decide was Santa Lucia Highlands or Drouhin from Oregon, and on and on.

      I make mistakes in identification, and so do many others. I have been hosting study tastings for groups working toward Court of Master Sommeliers level 3 & 4 accreditation. Some really great palates in these groups, and they also get it wrong often enough, especially when someone brings a wine to blind that they they know doesn’t taste like it is “supposed” to taste.

      I’m not convinced that these wines are outliers, “exceptions that prove the rule.” The only way I can logically square this is if the “rule” that vineyard location is the most important factor in determining the character of a wine is not a rule at all. I believe we have willfully mythologized the primacy of site, perhaps as a mis-rememberance of a past that does not serve us well today. Proust be damned.

      Here’s the experiment I’d love to do. Pick two sufficiently distinct clones of Pinot—my choices would be Swan and ENTAV 943. Plant them in 4-5 locations around the world. Don’t control for anything: use whatever rootstock, farming, and winemaking comprises the terroir of those locations, but ferment, age and bottle the selections separately. It would be useful to finish the bottles under screw cap and store them in a single location to at least take that variability out of the trial.

      Accumulate bottles over 3-4 vintages, then have a grand tasting by a trained panel scoring for a standard set of descriptors. Run stats on the results. The outcome I expect would be that the sum of site+clone explains 50%-60% of the variance, but that site and clone account for roughly equal amounts of the variance. Only if the differences in clone explained less than half the variance in the data set as differences in site would I consider my hypothesis falsified.

      Reply
  13. Pingback: טרואר – מה משפיע יותר על היין, אתר הכרם או הClone? | חדשות הכנת יין בעולם | Winemaking.co.il

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