Charles Caleb Colton, a 19th century English writer and cleric famously said: ‘imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.’
The 1800s were a much simpler time. In 2018, imitating someone else’s product, brand or offering will likely land you in the midst of copyright court battle.
But can the same be said for Australia’s Pinot Noir industry?
With more than 2000 clones of Pinot Noir across the world, imitation is rife in the wine industry – and for good reason, according to Nick Dry, Manager of the Yalumba Nursery.
You could call Nick a connoisseur of clones. He spends his days selecting, testing and deploying vine clones in vineyards across Australia.
While vine clones have been cultivated since the 14th century in France, their use in commercial Australian vineyards is relatively new. But how important are clones when it comes to winemaking in Australia, and why is imitation considered a good thing?
To start answering these questions, its important to understand why clones exist.
“When vineyards on a commercial scale were being established in Australia 50 to 100 years ago, growers would head to their neighbour’s or friend’s block and take cuttings, propagate them and then plant them out,” says Nick.
This process was given the name ‘mass selection’.
“With mass selection, there may be vines that have very low yield because of poor genetics, or vines with a virus, so in the process of taking those cuttings, all you’re doing is proliferating those problems into your own vineyard,” he said.
Essentially, cloning was devised to eliminate these problems, establishing a healthy framework upon which to grow vines, essential to producing high-quality wine.
“There was an understanding that with particular vines, if you took a cutting, it would perform similarly to the mother vine,” says Nick.
“In developing a clone, what you’re looking to have is freedom from viruses, consistency of yield and an understanding of its bunch structure, berry size, and sensory characteristics of the vine with regard to wine-making,” he said.
It is estimated there are now more than 2000 Pinot Noir clones globally, with at least 200 registered for use.
THE PERFECT MIX
Clones are an incredibly useful tool for winemakers: they can mix and match clones to develop a particular style of wine.
“The power of the clone lies in having multiple clones in your vineyard, which can help produce a unique and diverse wine.
“When we think about clones it’s the sum of the parts, really. We often get people asking us ‘what’s the best clone?’ The answer is that its not about ‘the best clone’, it’s about how to use multiple clones to produce the best wine.”
But it’s not just the clones that impact the end-product, the conditions of the vineyard also have a huge part to play.
IT’S ALL ABOUT THE PLACE
“I think site is always king,” says Nick. “Clones are a nice addition to the sensory characteristics that will be drawn out because of the landscape they’re planted in. Ultimately, the climate, the environment and the soil form the basis of your wine.
“Just by using a quality clone, you can’t turn a rubbish site into one that’s going to produce premium wine. It’s not possible.”
At Dalrymple Vineyards, vigneron Pete Caldwell has trialled dozens of clones over the years and has settled on ten that best match the Tasmanian soil type and climate: seven from France, two from Switzerland and one from Griffith, in New South Wales.
“Clones are just one element of the quality equation,” he says. “It takes time for a vineyard to literally grow into its clone and express its true personality.”
“The French say it is not worth assessing wines from vines under seven or eight years old, until they are physiologically mature. We don’t expect to see significant influences from clones in our wines until about ten years – so it is a game of patience.”
CHARACTER BY COUNTRY
Pete continually assesses the contribution a clone makes to a wine’s characteristics, such as yield and ripeness. He believes it’s a fine balancing act to determine what is a clonal influence and what is affected by climate and soil.
“We have found that even though some clones do well in France they produce different wine outcomes in Australia and New Zealand,” he said.
“For example lots of Pinot in France is made with the Dijon clone 115 – it’s a good all round Pinot clone with medium yield and bunch weight, early ripening and it makes wines that are supple, well balanced, aromatic and age well.”
Another popular choice is the Dijon clone 114. Again it has medium to low yields and ripens early and it makes wines that are well structured and fruity.
“Our experience is that 115 performs well in the cooler areas of southern Tasmania such as the Coal River while 114 is better in the warmer north around Piper’s River.”
Darymple is just one of hundreds of Australian wineries using clones to produce consistent, virus-free, unique and diverse wines.
Case closed: imitation really is the most sincere form of flattery when it comes to winemaking.