Grapes and Dolly the Sheep: A Look at Pinot Noir and Chardonnay Clones

What is a clone? With regard to wine, that is. Are vine clones akin to Dolly the Sheep? Frightening! Yet, in the New World, and particularly in the United States, we obsess over clones, especially with regard to two of the world’s most coveted vitis vinifera grape varieties: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

 How peculiar.

 (Oh, and don’t worry. Dolly and 777 aren’t exactly the same. After all, Dolly required three mothers.)

 Still, why are both called “clones”? Merriam-Webster and The Oxford Companion to Wine come to the rescue:

  • Merriam-Webster: “the aggregate of genetically identical cells or organisms asexually produced by a single progenitor cell or organism”

  • Oxford Companion to Wine: “a single vine or a population of vines all derived by vegetative propagation from cuttings or buds from a single 'mother vine'”

What do vine clones do? First, clones provide diversity. Second, they provide different colors, flavors, mouthfeels, tannins and ripeness. Third, they work better or worse with certain soils and rootstocks and may ripen earlier or later than others. As Benjamin Lewin MW writes in his book, In Search of Pinot Noir, “The general feeling is that no one of these clones by itself gives a really complete flavor spectrum, but that combinations make fine wine.”

How do winemakers choose clones? They choose them for all the reasons in the above paragraph as well as for the simple fact that they may be available. (Really, it can be that anti-climatic.) Or, they may choose certain clones because they are in their vineyard already and show favorable characteristics. A winemaker/vigneron may not look outside of his/her vineyard for planting material, preferring to use massale, or mass, selection. Selection and sélection massale mean the same thing.

This is a good point at which to elaborate on selections. However, part of the confusion with selections is that they bear no specific definition and their histories are often unclear. Nonetheless, there are similarities to brandy and cognac: all clones are selections but not all selections are clones. A selection is simply a clipping from a vine that shows favorable characteristics. A clone, however, has a pedigree derived from field and laboratory research, as done through Foundation Plant Services (FPS) in California and the Établissement National Technique pour l’Amélioration de la Viticulture (ENTAV) in the Languedoc. Such a pedigree can take a decade or two to establish.

Is this really such a big decision? Yes. It really is. At least 50 Pinot Noir clones are officially recognized in France alone, and this doesn’t include the beauties that can only be called selections. Though straining to keep up with the prolific Pinot Noir, Chardonnay is hardly a slacker with 34 strains recognized in France in the last official count I found.

 

Pinot Noir

At a 30,000-foot level, there are two strains of Pinot Noir: Pinot Droit and Pinot Fin, a.k.a. Pinot Classique. The first is known for its upright growth and healthy yields while the second is known for its smaller berries that yield more concentrated juice.

Were you about to plant a vineyard of Pinot Noir in the US, below are the major non-massale clones and their characteristics that you would surely consider. The characteristics attributed to each clone come from a combination of my tasting notes, discussions with producers and discoveries in other professional sources, such as the cross-reference list at the bottom of this section.

  • Dijon Clones:Domaine Ponsot is the source of these widely celebrated clones. Clone numbers beginning with “11” are older clones.
    • 114 – Early ripening; profound color with purple inflections; complex flavors; concentrated black and red fruits; seemingly intrinsic balance; fine yet abundant tannin.
    • 115 – Also early ripening; mid-depth color; favors complexity and savoriness; dark fruits – cherry, plum, blackberry; intense and rounded in structure; full-bodied.
    • 667 – Deep and vibrant color; eloquent bouquet; rather tannic; cellar-worthy structure.
    • 777 – A “tour de force” of flavor and color concentration; balance despite a yin-yang of round tannins and persistent flavor.
  • Roederer Clone: Six clones were imported to the USA in 1984 by Louis Roederer from Chouilly, France, for its Anderson Valley operation. Only two did not have Rupestris stem pitting virus concerns. These are registered as FPS 31 and FPS 32. Technically, only 32 is known as the Roederer Clone. These are commonly used in sparkling wine, and FPS 32 is also used for still wine. When made into still wine, FPS 32 gives dark fruit flavors.
  • Pommard Clones: Château de Pommard provided the source of these clones in the 1940s. Often favored over Dijon Clones in cooler Oregon (versus California).
    • Pommard 4 - firm in tannin and lightly warm on the palate with generous juiciness accompanied by light glycerol. Impressively pale.\
    • Pommard 5 & 6 – Density, structure and chewiness belie its fruit-driven nose.
  • Wädenswil Clones: Swiss in origin.
    • 2A - best known. Finessed tannins, alluring perfume and lifted acidity. Interestingly, this clone has thicker skins than the others. These skins release ample quantities of tartaric acid, contributing to the clone’s mouth-watering quality.
  • Martini Clones: Heritage clones from the Inglenook estate are well-represented in Carneros and Russian River Valley today. The FPS registered Martini Clone, FPS 13, gives decadently soft, ripe and often jammy fruit.
  • Swan Clones: From Joseph Swan's Russian River Valley estate, originally planted in 1969.  The source for his budwood may have been Domaine de la Romanée Conti (as a suitcase clone) or the Martin Ray Vineyard.  The Swan Selections tend to provide bright fruit and elegance.

Interestingly and confusingly, the same Pinot Noir clone can be known by a different name in different parts of the world. Here is a handy cross-reference chart from a recent Mornington Peninsula International Pinot Noir Celebration.

Chardonnay

Were you considering plantings of Chardonnay, dissimilar from its Pinot Noir cousin in that it transplants more easily to different sites and climates, you would surely be noodling over the clones below. Chardonnay also segments in two major, though different, categories: “regular” and “aromatic”, or “musqué”. Also unlike Pinot Noir, Chardonnay clones are obsessed over less. This may be because Chardonnay is so malleable that its processing trumps the clone – and sometimes the site – in the eyes of many winemakers.

  • Dijon Clones: First arrived in the US along with their Pinot Noir siblings in the 1970s.
    •  77 & 809 Highly perfumed.
    • 75, 78, 121, 124, 125 – Highly productive.
    • 76, 95, 96 – High quality with good complexity. Widely planted in Oregon. The latter two are also widely planted in New Zealand.
  • Wente Clones: Seemingly THE Chardonnay source in California as the Wente and Masson (Mount Eden) vineyards were the only significant ones left after Prohibition. The non-heat treated version is predestined to a significant quantity of millerandage, or “hens and chicks”, which ultimately improves concentration. California growers and winemakers use the term “Wente” loosely. Some refer to the FPS registered clones while others refer to non-certified selections also known as Shot Wente. “Shot Wente” is a selection, not a clone. Registered Wente clones include FPS 67 and 72.
  • Martini Clones: Selections taken from the Stony Hill (McCrea family) vineyard by Michael Martini, Jr. The clippings for the original Stony Hill vineyard came from the Wente Vineyard. (UC Davis admits that the exact origins for many UCD clones are not known. Tracing them was not considered important back in the day.)
    • Martini selections that were registered by FPS are Clones 4, 5, 6, 8 and 14. Clones 4 & 5 are high yielders with high cluster weights and large berries yet high acidity.
    • FPS 4 and 5 were also combined into a new clone, 108, in the late 1960s, which sometimes goes by, again confusingly, “Wente clone” or “Davis clone”. FPS 108 was widely planted not only in California but also in early Washington State vineyards.
  • Mendoza Clone: Unclear origins despite the nod to South America in the clone’s name. It seems unlikely that Argentina was a reference point for higher quality Chardonnay several decades ago. Nonetheless, it is a low- to moderate-yielder given its tendency to millerandage. Michael Hill-Smith MW, of Australia’s Shaw & Smith, says it is low in phenolics so it is well-suited to skin contact, which turbo-charges its aromatics.
  • Mount Eden Selection: Paul Masson imported the original plant material from Burgundy just prior to 1900. As with Wente and Martini clones, its progengy are spread far and wide. This is a highly respected selection. According to a UC Davis report, Zelma Long once described the clone as showing, “depth, power and texture.” This selection has been “cleaned” of the viruses it carried via shoot tip culture (rather than heat treating the vine, which can cause mutation). The “clean” version was registered just over a decade ago as FPS 66.

 

So, why do all of these clones matter anyway? After all, Burgundy largely feigns disinterest in clones. They relegate this clonal parlance to their New World brethren producing “their varieties”. As the insightful Michael Glover of Bannockburn in Australia once wrote to me, “Clone talk is a great way for the industry’s new entrants to express to wine writers just how serious they are in their new endeavors to make great Pinot Noir.”

As Oregon learned about the clones it brought north from California – and what many, many other regions learned in different patterns through the process, is that clones are finicky. They are highly site specific. They don’t play nice on every playground. Planting density, altitude, aspect, irrigation (or lack thereof), wind, etc. all play a part. I’ve even heard one producer liken them to humans, “Some people love the beach; others prefer the slopes.” The jigsaw of qualities to consider is mind-boggling, and winemakers need to be honest with themselves – sooner rather than later – when something doesn’t work. Scott Zapotocky, vineyard manager of Paul Hobbs in Sonoma, said as much when we met this January. After all, as Michael Glover also wrote:

“What works or doesn’t work at Bannockburn Vineyards in Geelong with a clone that is planted at 10,000 vines per hectare and dry grown does not have much relevance to how that clone may perform in the Mornington Peninsula planted at 2,000 vines per hectare and irrigated.” 

Still, Allen Meadows, in his insightful 2008 letter to US Pinot Noir producers, stated that he worries the most popular clones planted in the US speak of the clones more than of the terroir. However, Lewin quotes Nick Peay, of Peay Vineyards, who has a different take on this issue, saying, “When Pinot is picked overripe, the wines tend to taste the same regardless of clone or site.” And, California producers, especially, are wont to pick overripe though a handful of producers are changing their wine styles.

With today’s spotlight on clones in the US, it’s hard to believe that just three decades ago, vineyard managers simply ordered “Chardonnay” and “Pinot Noir” from nurseries. Still, what are producers, sites and clones combining to express? Even with all the scientific advances, we have many unanswered questions. And, to complicate things for the future, many of these famously numbered clones – the Dijon family, in particular – began appearing in the US in the 1970s – a chilly decade in Burgundy. Our climate has changed. How will these clones trace time? Will they be relegated to the history books or will they morph anew, with or without human help?

It will be highly interesting to look back after the next three decades to see how our development and use of clones has progressed.

 

 

 

Anonymous
  • Interesting to see the clonal selections cross compared with characteristics that normally are described in finished wine that can ultimately vary based upon picking/winemaking choices.  The interesting table to see would be vigor and morphological differences based upon trellising and base soil types.  A nice article to ponder on though.  The research goes on...

  • This is very helpful. Thank you Christy.

  • Thanks for this article!  I really enjoyed the history behind many of the colonial selections.  Great work!

  • Thank you Christy. Having just completed vintage working simultaneously at two Pinot Noir producers, my initial thoughts are in line with the "the jigsaw of qualities to consider" and that, for me, without a doubt, Pinot Noir is site specific. I had the good fortune to taste many barrel samples from many specific sites, often the same clones and then again samples from the 2011 wines before they were blended. Fascinating and fun. Then to add to the puzzle, think about the yeast protocol and barrel selections. This was a great article.

  • Great post! What about other Pinot Noir producing regions? Alsace, Friuli, Germany, Patagonia? Does clonal selection affect the flavor profiles of the wines coming out of those regions as much as it does California, Oregon, and Australia? Do clones grown in different wine growing regions display the same flavor profiles just on a more/less ripeness scale, or does the terroir of the region play a bigger role in the flavor profile of the end result?

    I loved the comparisson tasting notes on the link!