Varieties of clonal confusion

The new Wine Grapes book (by Jancis Robinson et al, see my review of it here) has had the effect of making my mind both clearer and more confused about the differences between varieties, clones and mutations.

flagstoneBK5Of course, it’s been clear for a very long time that the things we call clones of a variety can be very different from one another in terms of both their viticultural characteristics and their aromas and flavours. Probably it was first made clear to me in the late 80s and early 90s (was it?) when we properly realised that the dominant strain of pinot noir in South Africa (in Hamilton Russell Vineyards PInot, most famously) was in fact a Swiss clone called BK5, genetically selected for sparkling wine. Bruce Jack’s Flagstone even named its pinot BK5. Changing to Burgundian clones was an important step in the radical improvement in local pinots.

But now Wine Grapes makes it abundantly clear that, by scientific definition (referring to DNA characteristics), pinot noir itself is not actually a variety at all. It is “merely” a clone (that is, a long-propagated mutation) of a variety called Pinot. Pinot noir, pinot blanc, pinot meuniere, and all the other pinots, are all clones, not different varieties.

Not that we’re likely to actually change our practice of calling Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris varieties – neither in our casual discussions nor even, I’d guess, in official documents like the legislated lists of permitted varieties (whether in Burgundy or South Africa).

And it occurs to me to wonder just how scientifically legitimate it is to speak of different clones of pinot noir, if pinot noir is itself nothing more than a clone? Aren’t these different versions of pinot noir all equal, parallel clones of pinot, rather than of pinot noir? If someone can clarify this for me, I’d be most grateful.

But it does all, anyway, serve to remind us of the vital significance of mutations and resultant clones. There are those in Cape vineyards who like to think of something called “steen” as tantamount to a separate variety, almost, from chenin blanc, the result of a mutaion of chenin to local conditions. Of course, if there is such a mutation, it would be a clone rather than a different variety – unless, indeed, there had been some natural cross-fertilisation with some other variety in the course of chenin’s long history in South Africa.

Certainly, local chenin tends to be very different from that on the Loire. I believe that there are eight clones locally available, with yield being a major point of difference. But there used, apparently, to be many more chenin clones, before the authorities abandoned some that were particularly heavily virused.

chenin_blancThe important point is that we should be putting enormous effort into finding out and propagating (quality permitting) those clones which are particularly suited to our climate and other conditions. Those are the clones that are likely to produce the best, and most specifically “Cape” wines – those, rather than the “best” clones from Europe. Chenin is crucially, and increasingly, important to our wine economy and it seems we actually know remarkably little about it  as a local grape!

Who knows anything real about the chenin growing in old vineyards in Olifants Rivier, and producing a whole bunch of acclaimed wines (like Sadie Skurfberg, Botanica Chenin, Donkiesbaai Steen, Alheit Cartology)? Are these vines a distinct version – a potentiallly propagatable clone – of chenin, one different from, say the chenin that produces the fine Beaumont Chenin? Could we propagate a clone that has a particular tolerance for dryness and heat and can still produce a great wine?

Certainly we should be looking also at semillon, which has had such a long and crucial role in South African wine-growing. We know that a pink mutation developed here, probably uniquely, though it has not been properly developed as a clone. So how many other mutations have also developed, and is there one of them that gives particuarly superb and useful results?

A lot of research should be going into all this, in my opinion. It could have a radical and beneficial effect on South African wine. But, as far as I know, Stellenbosch University’s oenology department is not giving the matter an iota of consideration.

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