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Game of Clones:

Australia's Vine Culture

Whether you follow each vintage with bated breath or simply enjoy a few glasses of Pinot Noir with friends, along the way you’ve probably heard someone talk of vine clones.

But what exactly is a clone and why do winemakers use them?

Vine cloning sounds more like science fiction than science fact, however cloning vines is not only an art and science but a preserved living family tree of the world’s favourite drink.

In a recent conversation with owner and winemaker Robert Magdziarz, of Warramunda Estate, we asked about his estate and the vine clones populating the grounds. With his insights, we discover the history of Australia’s vines, the culture of casual vine theft and the reality of what it takes to be a successful winemaker.

To put the concept of vine cloning into perspective for those of us who aren’t grape growers, Robert said: “There are maybe 5000 rose types, they all actually come from a single rose. They’ve subsequently been genetically modified, modified by cuttings or root-type changes, but ultimately they've created different clones.”

Why clone? Wine makers from the beginning of the first vintage up to now continually experiment with certain varietals in their specific terroir. If they find a vine possesses a trait that makes the winemaking process easier they’ll begin to take cuttings of the vine and grow them until their vineyard is full.

Worthy traits to clone could be a vines' resistance to disease or pests; perhaps they grow less fruit which ensures nutrients are focused on the remaining fruit; or a clone that produces grapes which, at the end of fermentation, give off a desire perfume smell or a taste on the tongue.

“So, we're really using 'clonal' material to assist in making better wines", said Robert.

The team at Warramunda Estate like to combine the fruit from multiple clones to create complex wines that take the character strengths from each clone. Depending on the vintage, the Warramunda Estate Pinot Noir could be a combination of two or three clones.

Robert said, “You might use four different Pinot Noir clones and when you blend them you get a completely different wine compared to using just one clone.”

While many current vine clones are the product of experimentation or a naturally occurring mutation, the early days of Australian winemaking were somewhat clandestine.

Autumn vines at McHenry Hohnen in the Margret River

Robert said, “You’ve gotta’ go back to old times. Back in the 18th century, quarantine laws didn’t exist like they do now. People would have gone overseas, taken cuttings, wrapped them up in boxes and just ship them home. Other growers would have seen how those cuttings performed and then thought ‘geez I want that’ and would just go in after dark and take their own cuttings. It’s actually very easy to graft a cutting, you just cut a piece of the vine with two or three buds on it, put it into the ground and it will grow.

Dubbed his ‘vinuous ark’, James Busby, arguably the founder of the Australian wine industry, brought over 350 vines by boat from Europe to Sydney in 1831. He packed them in moss and sand and soil to preserve them during the long haul.

More recently, there is the tale of Tyrrell's Wines ‘obtaining’ Chardonnay vines under the cover of darkness from the neighboring Penfolds’ Hunter Valley vineyard. After Penfolds winemakers refused to give Tyrrell's any cuttings, they simply slipped in one night and requisitioned some. This story is still told when wine lovers gather at Tyrrell's.

Robert Magdziarz suspects even his Shiraz vines are the product of ‘liberated vines’ from France.

“Our Shiraz clone is the Best’s Old Block Shiraz 1867. I believe that was a clone smuggled into the country out of the Rhone Valley to Best’s [Great Western] and found its way to Mount Langi which then became a clone to buy', said Robert.

Robert saw great potential for the clone and his estate. But not everyone thought the same. “Initially people weren’t that interested in it because it’s the type of clone that requires a longer ripening period. As a consequence, in some sites the longer you hang it the more risk you have of the acids dropping which can make the wine quite flabby. In our case, we take the risk and we see this interesting flavour component that comes through. Some years it might be quite a unique colour, other years its spice, which for us drifts between white and black pepper… We looked at Mount Langi and Best’s, the Grampian style vineyards, saw the quality of the wines produced and we chose the Best’s Old Block Shiraz clone and consequently we produce a very good Shiraz. ”

Around the world, there are thousands upon thousands of different vine clones, each offering their own unique characteristics. So it's hardly surprising that each wine stands unique from the next, even from the same vineyard.