Tuesday, August 27, 2013

KT3 and Clones

The title sounds like something straight out of Star Wars or Total Recall!

Back in the mid 1800’s a disease spread through Europe’s vineyards, destroying almost two thirds of the continent’s vineyards. Needless to say panic set in, and the origin was eventually found to be a small insect that attacks the roots of the vitis vinifera vines called Phylloxera. It quite literally wiped out most of Europe’s vineyards within a couple of years. Frantic research traced the origin of the louse back to America, but also uncovered the critical discovery that American vines seemed resistant to it.

Enter the amazing skill of grafting. By taking an American rootstock, resistant to Phylloxera, and grafting a European vine onto it, European wine growers could begin to re-plant their vineyards and maintain the original vine’s character and quality. Those vineyards that hadn’t already been destroyed were also ripped out and re-planted. An enormous task.

Today, virtually all of Europe’s vineyards are planted with grafted vines. There are a handful of “pre-phylloxera” or deliberately planted ungrafted vineyards, but phylloxera is still a very real threat and the producers coaxing these vines to produce fruit every year acknowledge the scale of the challenge. Bernard Baudry’s amazing “Franc de Pied” Cabernet Franc that we import is made from ungrafted vines, but Matthieu recently acknowledged that Phylloxera is claiming more and more vines and they are slowly losing the battle and the wine will most likely not feature as a single bottling any more.

So effectively every single vine planted today is a grafted vine, involving two very different aspects: the vitis vinifera variety (the vine itself – generally called the Clone) and the American originated  (phylloxera resistant) Rootstock that it is grafted onto.

This can offer a bewildering choice of options for the producer. Take Pinot Noir for example: there are over 20 commonly/commercially available clones. Some offer high yield (the amount of fruit the vine will produce), some promise low yield. Some flower early, some late. Some are good for sparkling. Some originated from specific regions. All have very sexy names such as Clone 777 or Clone 828 (classic Burgundian clones). A quick look here will give you an idea of the some of the Pinot Noir options available: Some Pinot Noir Clones

Or you can choose a grape variety that seems to have a very limited choice. We soon discovered that Blaufrankisch / Modra Frankinja was one of those! The search for information is not helped by the variety’s origins in Hungary – a country whose language is completely impenetrable. Blaufrankisch (Kekfrankos in Hungary) is an “autochthonous” variety – one that is a result of natural cross breeding or mutation in a particular region and generally has a unique association with just that region. Although it is generally believed to be a cross between Zweigelt and St. Laurent, detailed information about different options for planting were very limited given that it is unique to a relatively small region. Any commercially available clone requires someone to have actually decided to produce that clone – and know what characteristics that clone will offer.

We hit the road on the search….. and quickly realised how difficult the task was. Some of the encounters were hilarious: a vine nursery proudly showing us pictures of the Blaufrankisch vines they had available – vines laden down with high yielding, dilute grapes – and when we pointed out that we wanted low yield, low vigour, we would told “don’t worry, the photo is wrong (!), these are definitely low yield”!! Yeah, and we’ll only discover the truth three years from now when the vines mature after a lot of hard work….

We finally found a nursery that seemed to at least have some options available. Many producers want a high yielding clone (of any variety) – lots of volume, fruit and a higher income if you are selling it e.g. to the local co-operative. Some people can look at you a bit strangely when you tell them you want a plant that isn’t going to produce that much fruit….. So we finally found a clone called KT3 which seemed to offer low yields and open bunches. Out of 500,000 grafted vines produced annually by this one nursery, just 10,000 were of KT3, so little is the demand for a low yielding clone.

KT3 Clone in the nursery

The second element is the rootstock. Again, there are many choices available. Low vigour, high vigour, rootstock for clay soil, sandy soil, limestone etc. etc. I have to say that Nigel Greening’s opinion (owner of Felton Road) makes the most sense to me: of course, pick a rootstock and clone close to your requirements, but ultimately those vines will adapt to the unique soil that they are planted in. The result is ultimately what one could call terroir: the marriage between the planted vine and the soil. So we chose a relatively standard rootstock called Binova – low vigour and a good all-rounder.
Open bunches - typical of KT3 clone

All of this requires planning – and trust. It’s October at this stage and the vines need to be booked for planting in May. Generally by the end of October a nursery will have sold everything, they don’t want to produce plants that won’t be sold. They will be grafted over the winter and all we will receive boxes of long think sticks, with wax seals at the end of each, concealing a tiny bud that will burst out in the Spring and bring with it the hope and expectation of many years of wonderful Modra Frankinja. 

But we won’t fully know what we have got until long after they have been planted in the soil. It’s a trust thing….

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