Terroir, Rootstock, Clones, and Cross-Breeding: Quality Wine Starts In the Vineyard

To the casual observer, wine might appear to be a relatively straight forward beverage to create. But now that I am wanting to plant a few vines the whole process is becoming mind-boggling; aside from the winery, just the simple task of planting a few vines is a series of complex considerations. Obviously, I am not purporting that my earlier wine making hobby efforts produced a quality wine; far from it. But I have concluded, just any grape juice, even in the hands of an accomplished winemaker, does not bring forth a quality wine. So, what makes a great juice?

I am reminded of an adage: Great wine starts in the vineyard. “The phrase is not meant literally but implies that you can’t make great wine if the raw material isn’t up to scratch (sic). This is certainly true and in the past two decades wineries have been putting a huge amount of effort into their vineyards in a bid to improve their fruit quality, trialing new methods from green harvesting to fancy irrigation systems,” writes Rebecca Gibbs, Editor at Wine-Searcher.

There are indications that wines are being elevated starting in the vineyard. Just look at the amount of money being spent on new varietals, clones, new plantings, research into disease tolerant vines, and better soil chemistry/research. Even major universities are expending significant resources on research efforts that are improving the attributes/characteristics of wine grapes. For example, the University of Arkansas, under the direction of Dr. John Clark has a great wine grape program and has been awarded patents on brand new varietals. I am only pointing out that there is significant research, even in areas not known for being a bastion of wines. Of course, the recognized big players in wine research are: UC-Davis, Fresno State, Penn State, Cornell, Oregon, and Minnesota Universities.

There are many universities in the U.S. that have major programs underway to develop new clones, growing techniques and varietals that address specific needs of vineyard owners relative to improving plant and fruit quality. Such programs are bringing forward vastly improved fruit that make quality wines. The focus on grape/vine research is to improve the viticulture characteristics that address the ever-changing needs of the wine industry (and ultimately the consumer). With wineries in all 50 states, thus dictating differing needs of these geographically disparate wine centers, there is constant need for new ways to improve wine, starting in the vineyard. Such words as cloning, rootstock, breeding, and hybrids encourage wine lovers to think a little deeper about their wines.

Consider this, a vineyard owner/winery owner may need new vines with distinct characteristics. For example: improved cluster size, higher yields, different fruit chemistry, color of the juice, phenolics, a specific aroma profile, drought and wet climate resistance, more disease tolerant, etc. Obviously, this is a challenge that only relates to vineyard operations. In an earlier article I mentioned that there is an ongoing research program with the Catena Winery in Mendoza, Argentina and UC-Davis to develop new clones (and maybe varietals) that grow quality grapes in high and arid soils and climatic conditions. Again, you need good fruit for good wine.

Probably the most recognized grape varietal for wine is Cabernet Sauvignon, a varietal from France that came about by an act of nature. There are references to this grape that goes back to the 17th century. It is a “cross” between Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc. This varietal is planted basically worldwide and has some very admirable character for winemakers; it is hearty, great color and nice aromas. (By-the-way, the ancestry of the Cabernet Sauvignon was validated by UC-Davis in 1997. “UC- Davis scientists John Bowers and Carole Meredith solved the mystery using DNA fingerprinting technology that proved that Cabernet Sauvignon was the progeny of a surprising spontaneous crossing of the Bordeaux cultivars, Cabernet franc and Sauvignon blanc,” as reported in Foundation Plant Services 2008.) For more details please visit these sites:- https://www.shop-swimmingpool.at/

With pollination happening in nature, even the Cabernet Sauvignon goes through mutational changes constantly. This would result in new clones coming about. Some have said there are 29 Cabernet Sauvignon clones.

Yes, we know vineyards select the vines they plant based upon a number of considerations, some were noted previously. In reality a vineyard manager, confronted with the need to plant new wines is confronted with a plethora of options for the vine specifications they will take to their vine nursery. The considerations run the gambit. For example, what are the soil conditions and what varietal will grow best? Climate trends can impact varietal selection and the clone type for that varietal. Then the vineyard manager must select a rootstock. And the list goes on. Sufficed to say: soil, climate, disease resistant, yields, colors and aromas of a grape can all be overruled by considerations dictated by the market place; what the consumer wants to buy. Sometimes the useful life of a vine (vines can produce for approximately 75 years) is never achieved because of considerations outside of human control.

So, when you are driving through vineyards in Sonoma or Napa on the way to a wine tasting, let’s explore the options that go into producing a high-quality fruit that will make high quality wines. All vineyards are not created equal. Today we know that the wine consumer is paying considerably more for quality wines. Ultimately, the vineyard owner will select a vine that will produce fruit that a winery will buy, that will also meet their specifications. After all, there are more than 10,000 varieties in the world. Of course, there are probably only a thousand or so used for wine and there are thousands of clones within varietals.

The selection of a vine for a vineyard is not a task to be taken lightly. At $4.60 a vine and assuming 2,000 vines per acre, it is easy to see that the financial commitment is extraordinary; not to mention that the owner is looking at 3 years to get a first harvest. After labor costs, irrigation preparations and material costs, it is easy to expect to spend $40,000 to $50,000 an acre to get first fruit.

A new trend in wine marketing is to brand a wine based upon the AVA (American Viticulture Area) of origin of the fruit made into wine. Therefore, by definition, each AVA designated by the TTB (Tax and Trade Bureau) is based upon a series of provable and researched differentiators that makes that area of land different than a plot at may be adjoining. Some of the issues discussed in an application for an AVA are: soil composition, past weather (rain, temps and snow) trends, aspects of climate (winds, sun exposure, etc.), altitude/elevation, and specific boundaries of the AVA. There are 240 AVA’s in the U.S. and 139 are in California; each AVA will impact what vines selected for planting-varietal, their clone, and rootstock.


Leave a comment

All fields marked with an asterisk (*) are required