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.
(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Two strains of Pinot Noir are mentioned here, do the clones listed fall into Droit or Fin/Classique?