A couple years ago at the Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Festival technical conference, winemaker Greg La Follette spoke about Pinot Noir lovers. “Pinot Noir consumers are the only consumers who consistently ask about clones” he said, suggesting that use of various clones conveyed a producer’s seriousness about the wine. I think part of the consumer fascination is also fed by the sheer number of Pinot Noir clones available and the fact that no other grape has been cultivated and studied for so long. I had the chance to explore some of these clones at a Carneros Wine Alliance barrel tasting last month at ZD Winery’s striking new barn.
Grapes have been propagated since the beginning of time through cuttings from other vines. Today, winegrowers still mark select vines that produce grapes with desirable traits – whether by cluster shape, berry size and flavor, disease resistance and so on – in order to take cuttings later and propogate these desireable ‘clones’ for replanting. In such a large region as California, most growers source distinct clones from commercial nurseries which in turn obtain them from Foundation Plant Services at UC Davis.*
The wines at the tasting fell more or less into two categories: Heritage clones and Dijon clones. The Heritage clones come from vineyards that have been farmed in California for decades, although most can be traced back to France, such as Pommard (from Pommard in Burgundy), Chalone and Calera (from Chambertin in Burgundy), Roederer (from Chouilly near Epernay in Champagne), even Martini (via Inglenook). Official Dijon clones such as 114, 667 and 777 were more recent importations into the U.S. from Burgundy in the 1980’s.
Do clones translate to different terroir?
Clones are technically genetic duplicates of a single mother vine, but they do vary in response to the location where they’re transplanted, the rootstock they’re grafted onto, farming practices and disease status. I described an extreme example of how Assyrtiko responds when replanted outside of Santorini Island in Greece, which seemingly lost all of its varietal character. And at the aforementioned technical conference, La Follette said that location was most important, focusing on Pinot Noir character from a regional perspective, for example, describing Carneros Pinot Noir as having more strawberry and raspberry fruit vs. Russian River Valley’s more black fruit character. He said clones do matter in terms of the wine’s finesse, ageability, even price point.
I looked forward to judging for myself site vs. clone by narrowing the field of wines to Carneros terroir. That way, I could possibly taste differences in the wine not accounted for by regional character or winemaking technique alone. What I found was a wide range of expression that changed my perception of “typical” Carneros character. Here are my favorites.
Domaine Carneros Pommard Series Carneros Pinot Noir 2011 expressed what I always thought of as classic Carneros: strawberry confiture, slatey minerality and spice. This wine in particular had intriguing exotic spice notes that couldn’t come solely from barrel as about eight of 21 French barrels were new in this vintage. The wine was beautifully balanced, the finish exceptionally long. Domaine Carneros grows 12 different clones on their organically farmed estate and each year features one for a separate bottling. This wine is produced with Pommard clones, imported originally by Dr. Harold Olmo of UC Davis around 1956.
But not all of the wines had this typicite. The Donum Estate Carneros Pinot Noir 2010 was filled with rich black fruit and cola notes that I would normally associate with Russian River Valley terroir. This wine represents a blend of Donum’s best blocks including Calera, Martini and Donum Roederer clones. Calera’s small-berried fruit would account for the concentration of dark fruit, balanced by the freshness of the Roederer Champagne clone.
Etude Estate Carneros Pinot Noir 2009 uses a blend of multiple clones, resulting in a fresh, full-bodied but well-balanced, complete wine. The expression of this wine, again, was quite different from the others. It was more perfumed, with floral notes and black cherry fruit.
The Dijon clones
Tasting Nicholson Ranch Pinot Noir might lead one to believe in the power of clones over site because they definitely reminded me of Burgundy in their finesse, texture and complexity, especially the Nicholson Ranch Cactus Well Sonoma Valley Pinot Noir 2005, a blend of Dijon clones 114 and 667. Another clonal hint was the wine’s graceful evolution, “keeping quality” being a feature of 667 according to the Institut Francais de la Vigne et du Vin (IFV, formerly ENTAV) in Catalogue of Selected Wine Grape Varieties and Clones Cultivated in France. Another favorite was the Nicholson Ranch Sonoma Valley Pinot Noir 2009, a blend of 114 and 777, the latter another highly rated quality clone with superior aromas, body, tannins and ageing potential.
Oh how I wish there were more Chardonnay at the tasting. Fortunately, winemaker Stephane Vivier from Hyde de Villaine was there, pouring separate barrel samples of Wente clone and a Calera Chardonnay clone from legendary Hyde Vineyard. Stephane, from Burgundy, blends these together for their bottled Chardonnay. Having walked Hyde Vineyard many times as a winemaking intern at Robert Mondavi, I can say the two vineyard blocks are proximate to each other and farmed the same, but the expressions are completely different. The Wente was full-bodied and forward, with ripe melon and peach flavors. The Calera clone however had a purity of citrus and apple fruit, notes of minerality with a style that is fresh and elegant. I would love to see a standalone bottling of this.
Wines are influenced by everything that touches it. A couple of years ago, Jean-Pierre Renard told me that there are 1,000 clones in Burgundy, but 50,000 wines, reflecting the vast number of distinct climats in Burgundy and winemaking styles. By that measure, Carneros has only scratched the surface and I hope the vintners continue to lure us with multifaceted expressions of their wines.
Looking forward – Clone 828
Clone 828 is the most prominent of the newer Dijon clones. Even in 2009 travelling around Burgundy and Rheingau, vintners were enthusiastic about this high quality clone. At Cave de Buxy, Technical Director Alain Pierre told me that 828 had a moderate and consistent growing habit so that they didn’t have to do excessive canopy management or green harvesting, important for a cooperative. In taste, Pierre said that 828 produced “classic” Burgundy.
The results haven’t been as consistent in the U.S. since most clonal material was unofficially imported and some diseased, but FPS released a cleaned-up version last year as proprietary Pinot Noir ENTAV-INRA® 828.1. If you love to hear about clones, there will be a dedicated segment on the history of 828 at the Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Festival technical conference on May 17 that’s not to be missed.
Note: FPS is a cooperative program with the USDA and the California Department of Food and Agriculture that acts in many ways as a clearinghouse where domestic and imported vines can be recorded for provenance, tested and cleaned for any diseases and prepared for broad sale to commercial nurseries.