Ampelography –> Genetics –> ? Varieties –> Clones –> ?

How much difference does clone make to flavor, and where do we draw the line between important and unimportant differences? The line might really be between interesting and uninteresting differences; any difference is important if we choose to make it so. I’ve written on Palate Press this month about variety, clone, and treating pinot gris like pinot noir, which provokes an unsettling argument about what differences are important differences.

Before the global phylloxera crisis in the late 19th century, precisely identifying varieties was less crucial from a viticultural standpoint, bottles didn’t routinely carry variety information until the mid-20th c., and many from the Old World still don’t. But where variety is the way consumers make purchase decisions, some now go a step further and heralding specific clones, at least on websites and to wine writers.

We have reasonably fixed definitions for what constitutes a variety and a clone. A variety is the unique progeny resulting from a fertilized egg involving genetic reassortment between the DNA of two parents. A clone is a variant of a variety resulting from small genetic changes (usually spontaneous changes from random mutations) involving just those genes, not full-on mixing. Fine.

But those definitions are essentially arbitrary, or at least they could be otherwise. The technology we have defines how we can define a species, or a variety, or a clone. Clones are only clones when those genetic changes produce some big, obvious physical change that a grower will notice and decide she likes enough to cut and reproduce. Most genetic changes aren’t like that. Most probably don’t result in any important change to grape quality, but there’s likely a whole category of mutations that affect ripeness, phenols, canopy development, or whatever that go unnoticed — because they’re not big and obvious, maybe because they deal with invisible chemicals — but that affect quality parameters we care about.

We’re developing precision viticulture techniques that map vineyards at a sub-block and perhaps even individual vine level for differences in development and quality. As genetic testing becomes easier, precision vit could easily include genetically typing individual vines. Purchased stock should fit the known genetic profile of a known and loved clone bought from a certified facility, but older vineyards are going to be full of endless numbers of new…clones? Do we call them clones when they’ve not been selected and propagated?

The resolution at which we can define species — actually, let’s make it simpler and just say define differences — changes with the technology we have to do so. So we moved from ampelography to Mendel to DNA sequencing to the Robinson, Harding, and Vouillamoz tome outlining the genetic relationships of darn near most grape varieties on the planet. A splendid article from 1938 outlining principles for doing ampelography — distinguishing grape varieties by their physical characteristics — observes that botanical and horticultural classifications of grape varieties are different. The botanists want to describe family relationships, the horticulturists to create practical guides for distinguishing varieties, so we have the genetic tree and the field identification guide. Different purposes, different resolutions, different differences called out as important.

Resolution isn’t about “natural” differences. It’s about the degree of difference we decide is important. I’ve tasted pretty profound differences amongst different clones from the same vineyard when they’ve been vinified separately and before they’re blended together. They’re striking. They’re wonderful. My little wine writer soul wants to proclaim over new-found differences. Those differences seem important. But in older mixed-planting vineyards full of whatever happened to be around at the time, harvested and made all together as a “field blend,” variety may not even be all that important.

On the one hand, people like Matt Kramer have been urging growers (of pinot noir in particular) to plant lots of different clones as a prayer against the curse of boring wine. And researchers looking to natural grape genetic diversity for breedable salvation from Pierce’s Disease, powdery mildew, and other expensive threats caution against limiting and losing living genetic pools that could be irreplaceable in our time of future need. And yet, if those researchers succeed, growers will have first one, maybe eventually a handful of clones carrying those disease resistance genes that they’ll want (or be pressured to) plant.

As many winemakers tell me that they don’t want to talk about clones and wish people would stop asking about them as want to talk about little else; I suspect that there’s a poetry competition for odes to chardonnay “Mendoza” and pinot noir “Abel” running somewhere in New Zealand. It’s part of your story or it’s not. Great. But we can say the same thing about variety, and maybe all of this consumer interest in genetic differences is merely a fad. A century from now we could be talking about micro-clones, or about clades, or about specific genes a vine does or doesn’t carry, or about famous vineyards planted with an especially successful mix. Wine evolution, made possible with the support of genetics, but brought to you by the eddies of our changing attention spans.

Story and strategic choices in talking about Central Otago subregions

Central Otago went from zero to international recognition in less time than it takes to test the merit of a great Burgundy vintage. Good for them. It’s occupants had the advantage of a favorable climate, enthusiastic pioneers, and in many cases an enviable lot of capital investment, but they also experimented generously and — most importantly — became polished storytellers. The stories may in fact have outpaced the wines, which is less a criticism of the latter than an acknowledgement that they are very much still figuring out what they’re about. And so, while it’s obvious that subregional differences are dramatic enough to shout about, not much shouting actually happens on that account. One: they don’t yet have the maturity for more than broad subregional outlines. Two: it might not be part of the story they want to tell in any case.

Driving through Central makes it clear that subregional differences should be important. Driving in from coastal Otago (the Dunedin area, where I live), the first substantial growing area you encounter is Alexandra, a dry, flattish valley with a large (for this area) town. Cross the hill and drive past the dam and you’re in Cromwell, where many vineyards enjoy the mitigating effects of Lake Dunstan. North at the top of the lake, the Bendigo vineyards are widely known as seeing both the hottest and the most extreme weather. Go east toward Queenstown and the Bannockburn vineyards are perched above the Kawarau river. Through the pass further toward Queenstown, the Gibbston valley has the highest elevation and the coolest climate. And then there are the outliers: dear Nick Mills at Rippon in Wanaka; vineyards in Waitaki closer to the coast. These are obvious differences. Central Otago doesn’t tend toward subtle.

Plenty of conversation is happening about subregions, none of them questioning whether they’re significant. The questions instead are about what is significant. Are site differences principally related to soil differences as you move up the “terraces” from the valley floor? Or is the elevation more significant? Maybe it’s enough to talk about those big subregions. There’s that first problem: it’s hard to tell in part because vines are young, but maybe even more so for want of continuity. Vineyard managers, winemakers, owners, directions, and styles have flexed enough here that two challenges become significant: creating distinctly regional pictures independent of those other factors, and passing down sensibly kept records and knowledge gained from experience. The openness to experimentation and international flux that has helped these folk find a niche in the pinot world so quickly has, at least in some cases, come at the expense of some stability. Point the first.

Point the second: wine, and Central Otago, is all about story. Subregions may not be the story people want to tell here. Yet. Adept storytelling is a stand-out feature of many successful wineries here: to justify selling $70 pinot noir with nearly no history behind them, it has to be. Telling a story doesn’t mean talking about everything that goes into making a wine; it means carefully curating elements that create a specific image. Subregionality may not be part of that story. In some respects, that choice is about market readiness, which is obvious. They’ve succeeded when someone in Louisiana or Newcastle knows where Central Otago is; talking about Bannockburn is too much.

But it’s also a choice about style and direction. Some wineries here bottle from estate vineyards. Many blend fruit from different vineyards for balance and complexity and, no doubt, economy and ease. Matt Kramer told producers in 2013 that using many clones was (one; he had a few other interesting points) key to making exciting pinot noir, and it could be said that blending across multiple vineyard sites is similarly looking for complexity. As those vineyards age, and maybe as they’re planted with increasingly diverse clones, maybe

Back to choosing a story. Wineries here have mostly built their identities around concepts other than subregions. If that’s working for them, serious investment may not go into defining, refining, and emphasizing subregional stories.

Since differentiating yourself is ever necessarily the new world winery game, it makes sense that a (but not all) winery here is built expressly around exemplifying subregional differences. That’s Valli, where Grant Taylor bottles separate pinots from Gibbston, Bannockburn, and Waitaki. Tasting those three wines, made by the same winemaker in essentially the same ways, is an education that makes me wish Taylor’s portfolio included bottles from Bendigo and the other subregions as well. The Gibbston wine is the sharpest with the highest acidity, the Bannockburn the biggest and smokiest, the Waitaki the spiciest with the most prominent tannins. The Waitaki stands out to me as the most interesting wine, possibly because it’s the least standard and, dare I say, maybe the most complex: while the Gibbston and Bannockburn are well-made and enjoyable wines, the Waitaki has the thing that makes me want to keep coming back to the glass.

That’s the direction I hope Central Otago pinots take as they grow up: not just well-made wines with fancy labels and nice stories, but intriguing and maybe even intellectually satisfying wines. Whether they find that intrigue in multiple clones on single vineyard sites, blending across regions, or even just older vines under winemakers who decide to stay put, I’ll hope that Valli keeps doing what Valli does, and maybe more of it.

**By the by, “Central Otago” is a “district” within the “region” of Otago, where a “region” is roughly equivalent to a province or a state. Central Otago is a recognized Geographical Indication — it can be used on labels going to the EU, with a defined meaning — and various subregional names are allowed as “Appellations of Origin” on labels going to the States.

 

Pairings with pinots and the futility of looking to science for answers

I have a horrible (given my current location) admission to make: Central Otago pinot noir is, to date and as far as I can tell, not my favorite thing in the world. That said, Otago pinot noir is lovely and fulfills a completely different function at table. One of the best meals I’ve ever had with an Oregon pinot was the whole salmon I roasted with a bunch of herbs and various alliums for my last Thanksgiving in the States. A guest serendipitously brought a Lange pinot, and it was memorable. On the other hand, Grasshopper Rock’s example — grown on the Clutha River in Alexandra, Otago — didn’t really grab me on its own, but was just lovely when I tried it alongside some smoked hoki that I’d brought home from the Auckland fish market (yes, in my backpack, on the airplane). Those rather robust smokey flavors emphasized the wine’s structural and savory notes and took the focus off cherry flavors that were a bit more candied than I prefer.

What I just offered you is a lay theory. To make it more than that, I’d need an empirical study or three to examine the interaction of smoky foods with various potential sensory qualities found in pinot noir. The problem with that idea, apart from it having nothing to do with my current main priority, i.e. the PhD, is that food and wine pairing research is obnoxious. .

Food and wine pairing articles (I’m quoting this one) are full of statements like this: “This research found that eating cheddar cheese before drinking Shiraz reduced some of the negative characteristics of the wine and enhanced the preference for the wine. This indicates that consuming food and wine together can minimize some of the less desirable flavors of both.” And hypotheses like this one: “Certain food and wine combinations will be perceived as significantly better than others.” The latter of which, I suppose, points out that food-wine preferences could be completely personal, like favorite colors (except that favorite color preference isn’t random, either).

Perhaps this sort of research really interests sommeliers who could think about the benefits of a shiraz and cheddar pairing in a tasting menu, though I doubt they need reassurance that their choices will work for someone other than just themselves. The question still arises: is science, in all its reductionist glory, really the best way to attack food and wine pairings?

First, let’s get a methodology point out of the way. Apparently, the best way to evaluate food and wine pairings is to ask people to eat and drink at the same time rather than, say, munching a bit of cheese, swallowing, and waiting thirty seconds before taking a sip of wine or vice-versa. Because that’s the way people usually eat.

Moving on. Research to date says that wine sweetness and astringency, but not its acidity, are significant in determining ideal food pairings. The most recent food-wine pairing article I’ve encountered tried to suss out whether acidity was in fact important, and the role of wine expertise in food-wine preferences, along with moving beyond many previous studies by pairing wine with foods other than cheese. The chosen foods? Chevre, brie, salami, and milk chocolate, paired with an Ontario chardonnay, an Ontario sauvignon blanc, an Argentinian cabernet sauvignon, and an inexpensive LBV Port. Needless to say, this study isn’t going to give me any insight into my pinot noir pairing theories. Or, for that matter, any insight into any real food and wine pairing conundrum anyone ever faces anywhere.

I’m poking fun, but I’m not being wholly fair. The authors of this article have more expertise in what they’re doing than I do. It’s obvious to any wine or food nerd which of the above pairings will and won’t work, but that evidence is anecdotal, not scientific, and maybe those assumptions are worth testing. But when the authors begin asserting that this study provides evidence that acidity, sweetness, and tannins are all important in pairings, just from showing that milk chocolate works better with port than with chardonnay? No. Four examples aren’t enough to allow for that conclusion, not near enough to weed through and rule out all of the other things (confounding factors) going on in both the wines and the food.

So we’re back to where we started with pairing food and wine. What says our weight of accumulated, non-scientific wisdom? And does it taste good? The reductionism of sensory science may have useful ways to tackle the hyper-complexity of food + wine (don’t ask me whether that’s more or less complex than, say, the human immune system, which science seems to tackle with at least some success), but I’m not sure they’ve figured them out yet. And when I’m trying to decide what to serve with my next glass of pinot noir — Oregon, Otago, or otherwise — the only research I expect I’ll do will be on my favorite cooking blogs.

**All sorts of other fascinating alternate-scientific approaches have been taken to food and wine pairing, Chartier’s fascinating Taste Buds and Molecules: The Art and Science of Food, Wine, and Flavor being perhaps the most interesting example. What I’m talking about here is the mainstream pairing science found in peer-reviewed journals.