Fine Wine Writing by Jonathon Alsop

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Mapping The Wine Genome
One Sip At A Time

by Jonathon Alsop
September 2001

Now that the mapping of the human genome is complete, that awesome knowledge can be put to work creating what the planet really wants: a fuel-efficient, genetically modified SUV that won't roll over in an accident.

Although I have no scientific evidence, I assume the wine genome must be simpler, so can its mapping be far behind? Once it is mapped and made infinitely modifiable, surely it will be embraced by winemakers who dabble in genetic manipulation and grafting of different vines already.

Since I can't afford a multi-million dollar investment in people and technology, I've started my own analog wine genome project one sip of wine at a time, thanks to winemaker Eileen Crane from Domaine Carneros in the southern part of California's Napa valley.

She brought her awesome 1999 Domaine Carneros Pinot Noir to town along with barrel samples of different genetic clones of pinot noir that had been aged in different oak barrels made by different producers.

Eventually, these different clones and oaks will come together in a blend as the 2000 vintage. Once that happens, the game of name that clone is over. At the office, we have a database to keep all this organized, but in the wine world, it's just in different barrels.

Domaine Carneros, owned by Taittinger, is naturally most well-known as a sparkling wine producer. Eileen made her first pinot noir around 1992 on a whim as a holiday gift for the staff. The Taittinger family was so impressed they decided to develop the wine as part of the product line.

"People warned me that pinot noir is the hardest wine to make, but it's actually the second hardest," Eileen said. "The hardest wine to make is sparkling wine, which I'd been making for years."

Since the Carneros region has a history of growing successful pinot noir since the mid-1800s, there's a good deal of experience with different clones of that have yielded favorites over the years. "We think of these as Carneros heirloom clones," Eileen said. "They give us very consistent vintages, and we treat them very much the same way we do the sparkling wine grapes: gentle pressing and lots of blending."

We tasted samples from two clones that were tremendously different. Usually, you have a part of pinot noir wine you'd call fruity, and another part earthy. This was like experiencing the two sides of the personality of pinot noir independent from each other.

The first clone, called Swan, tasted earthy, funky, mushroomy with ripe fig or date fruit and pumpkin pie spice. Even though I can't prove it now, I wrote the word "euro" over this wine on my notes before I heard the rumor that it was from the famous vineyards of Romanee-Conti. Supposedly, it came to the US after being stolen in a daring yet cowardly nighttime raid years ago.

Smith Madrone was the name of the second clone, and it was light, bright, fruity and fresh with big sunny bing cherry and pear and plum flavors all mingling together. This wine tasted clean and cool, refined and ethereal as the Swan was rough and rustic.

Put them together, and you essentially get a three-dimensional picture of Carneros pinot noir that rivals good red Burgundy at two-thirds the price.

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