Every so often, I run into something on a wine bottle that either doesn’t make any sense at all, or that simply makes me think.
Today, that was this line on a Russian River Zinfandel that refers to “old clones”
Just to be clear, there’s no legal meaning to this. At first, I thought they were referring to old vines, which is a standard Zinfandel selling point, after all, the lifespan of the vines are over 100 years instead of the standard 30 or so for other varieties like Pinot Noir.
But, that’s not what they’re talking about here. Instead, they’re talking about old clones. First, I recently wrote about what a clone actually is-basically it’s just a grape allowed to grow and change over time in a specific spot, so it carries some qualities that would work well at that site. As an example, a French Chardonnay clone would do better in cooler weather than a standard California Chardonnay clone.
So what do they mean by old clones specifically in regard to Zinfandel? So the history of Zinfandel is complicated. There’s a lot of debate to this day about where the grape evolved, either here in California or in Italy where it is called Primitivo. I’m still betting on California based on the size of the plantings in both countries, as well as, the age of some of our Zinfandel vineyards. In any case, if you step back in time to the Gold Rush in California, there was a rush to plant grapes to make wine. After all, it was one thing to bring wine to New York via ship, it was another to trek it across the country before trains were even an option.
So we planted grapes and they developed. But, we were in a hurry. California was hot too so they threw in what was here, Zinfandel along with some French grapes that they knew were heartier. Stuff with thick skins. Petite Sirah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Mission and whatever they could get their hands on. At some point in our wine club I shipped a field blend that was of this same general persuasion. It started as Zinfandel, but over time, as the grapes grow and genetically change, it becomes something unique to that vineyard.
So at it’s core what’s an old clone? That’s not a thing. Even if it was, we couldn’t define it because an old enough vineyard has long since morphed into something altogether unique.