Wine

Clone Wars: Selecting the Right Pinot

Which clones are best for different regions—and how winemakers choose them

Photo illustration by Jeff Quinn.

As you roll through Oregon, the hills covered in row upon row of Pinot Noir grapes, every winemaker you stop to chat with seems to be talking about clones. It’s Pommard or it’s 115; it’s Wädenswil or it’s 777. With hundreds of clones of Pinot Noir available from regions all over the world, knowing the difference between them all—and where to plant each—can be a dizzying prospect.

Unlike hybrids and vines that result from cross-pollination, a clone is a vegetative propagation from a single parent plant. Over its many years, Pinot Noir has been known to mutate, which has led in part to the numerous clones of the grape. Today, there are around 1,000 different clones of Pinot Noir in the world, although not all are commercially relevant. Pinot Noir originated in France, and according to the Catalog of Vines Grown in France, 47 Pinot Noir clones are available for commercial use in France; some are also available outside of France. In the United States, according to John Caldwell’s Guide for Grapevine Clones for Professionals, another 16 or so clones are available. Most of these were brought back by an American professor who traveled to Europe in the 1940s and took Pinot Noir clippings from vineyard sites in France, Germany, and Switzerland—today they are known as Pommard, Geisenheim, and Wädenswil selections, respectively.  

Pinot Noir Clones in the Willamette Valley

When Oregon winemakers began working with Pinot Noir in the late ’60s and early ’70s, the main clones planted were Pommard and Wädenswil and some heritage clones—clones of perhaps unknown origin subsequently named after the California vineyard where they flourished. Many of those planted at Carneros Creek Vineyard in the early ’70s have also been widely planted in Oregon over the last 10 years, says David Adelsheim, a founding father of the Willamette Valley wine industry and the founder and director of Adelsheim Vineyard.

Then came the Dijon clones, which Adelsheim was largely responsible for bringing to Oregon. It was at the University of Burgundy’s Jules Guyot Institute that, as Adelsheim discovered in the ’70s, researchers had isolated 640 different clones of Pinot Noir, planted each in a vineyard, and were slowly making progress in determining which of those clones made the best wines by annually vinifying them. 

At the time, Adelsheim thought, “If we could get the great clones of Pinot Noir that Burgundy was evaluating and finding to be successful, then it would be far easier for us to find clones that would work in Oregon.” He says now, “It was unlikely that a clone that was terrible in Burgundy would result in great wines in Oregon, or that a clone that was great in Burgundy would make crappy wines in Oregon.”

Getting those best-of-breed clones became a mission for Adelsheim in the ’80s. In 1983, Oregon State University (OSU) hired a new professor of enology from New Zealand who decided to make his way to Oregon by way of France. The Oregon wine industry armed the professor with letters of introduction to Raymond Bernard, who was running the clone research in Dijon. Bernard agreed to send clippings from some clones so that OSU researchers could evaluate the Burgundy clones side by side with clones that had already been planted. Those clippings arrived in 1984 and went into quarantine at OSU, where research on them began. Finally, in 1990, the clones—which became known as the Dijon clones—passed out of quarantine and testing and became commercially available in Oregon.

Clone choice matters mostly to winemakers, says Mark Chien, the program coordinator for OSU’s Oregon Wine Research Institute (OWRI). “At the time the Dijon clones arrived in the Willamette Valley, the Pommard and Wädenswil clones were standard. Not that there was anything wrong with those clones, but given how exciting the Dijon clones were in Burgundy, it was thought they would perform well in the Willamette Valley too.”

Today the Willamette Valley is planted with heritage clones, Pommard, Wädenswil, and such Dijon clones as 115, 667, and 777.

“In Oregon, Pommard really shows itself,” says Jason Tosch, the vineyard manager for Stoller Family Estate. “You can get some typicity with that. You know it when you smell it or taste it.”

Yet no single clone seems the be-all and end-all for every winemaker. In fact, so varied are the expressions and uses of the various clones that it’s hard to pin down vineyard managers and winemakers as to which clone they believe is best, and why.

“For instance,” says Adelsheim, “Ken Wright [of Ken Wright Cellars in Carlton] thinks Wädenswil is great, and he has it widely planted. We hate it. It doesn’t mean he’s wrong or we’re right; we’re just different.”

Winemakers also say that using multiple clones in the same wine can build complexity. Some clones are used for structure, others for aromatics, says Tosch. “We’ve known 115 to be very structured. It can be the body of the wine, and then you have very aromatic clones—777 [can] be a pretty, aromatic clone, for example—that hang on the structure of the 115.”

Planting a variety of clones across every block allows the winemaker to create complexity and express the terroir of the vineyard. In this way, blending is done in the field rather than post-fermentation in the winery.  

While some research exists regarding how different clones perform in different climates and on different soils, there’s no simple, easy test that can be performed to help a winemaker determine which clone will work best in a microsite or a particular blend. “There’s no underestimating how tedious and exacting this process is,” says OWRI’s Chien. “It takes three years for a vine to produce any fruit—and then you have to make the wine.”

“Fundamentally, says Adelsheim, “you end up planting all the Dijon clones and Pommard and Wädenswil, and anything else you have an interest in—you plant it on an appropriate rootstock in the vineyard, and then the work starts—trying to figure out which clones first by themselves make great wine.” Then it comes down to a question of what the winemaker is looking for. “There is no standard agreement as to what makes the best Pinot Noir wine,” Adelsheim says. “Any winemaker, if given the choice on what to plant, would come up with a different set of clones, and different quantities. Some of the decision depends on the soil, on the elevation; some of it depends on the direction the vineyard is situated in. All of these things come into play.”

Tosch knows that some clones perform better than others in some sites. He won’t, for example, plant  the clone known as AS1 or Archery Summit 1historically called 828 in the Valley, because it was sourced from a clone brought in by Archery Summit who claimed it was 828—in a cold part of the vineyard, because it ripens very late. 

Clones in New Zealand and Chile

In New Zealand, the producer of Nobilo planted Pinot Noir in several areas around Marlborough in 2001 and 2002, and again in 2008 to experiment with the grape and with clones. The clones 114, 115, 667, and 777 were planted along the coastal areas of the Awatere Valley, says Nobilo’s winemaker, David Edmonds. Going up the Awatere River, some clone 6 and 115 was planted; and even further from the sea, in the Waihopai Valley, one hectare—roughly 2.5 acres—each of clones 5, 115, 667, and 777 was planted.

Says Edmonds, “We really found, as time went on, that we were developing more richness and more darker, brooding berry fruit further inland from the clones 5 and 777, the 115 and the 667.” In the Nobilo vineyard farthest from the sea, the 115 performed particularly well, as did the 667, but Nobilo has since removed most of the clones 6 and 115 that were planted in the more coastal vineyards and in the Awatere Valley.

Edmonds explains that 115 delivers rich spice characters, while 667 brings dark cherry, bramble, and berries to Nobilo’s wines. And while 114 may be a really good clone in Central Otago, where he’s seen it make very dark berried and structural wines, when planted in his region of Marlborough, what it yields instead is a very elegant red berry style of Pinot Noir, which is not what Nobilo is looking for. “I think it’s about finding the right clone for your site, for your microclimate,” says Edmonds.

When clonal selection really got started in Chile in the 2000s, everyone was talking about the Dijon clones, says Rodrigo Soto, the winemaker for Chile’s Veramonte winery. Soto then found a block of clones 9 and 16, from California, that had been planted at Veramonte in 1994. Considered to be of lower quality and less interesting than the Dijon clones—mostly because they formed larger clusters, had a shaggier canopy that was more difficult to control, and gave higher yields—these clones excelled at Veramonte, especially in comparison with the Dijons, which were weak in vigor and had tiny clusters. As an added bonus, clones 9 and 16 were also disease free, unlike the Dijons that arrived in Chile in the mid-2000s.

While Dijon clones may do exceptionally well in cooler climates, Soto isn’t convinced that they are a panacea for a place like Chile, with its Mediterranean climate and dry summers. Dijon clones don’t take well to the dehydration that can result from the arid climate, and radiation is a complicating consideration. A thinner ozone layer can lead to burned fruit if there isn’t enough canopy cover.

These days in Chile, says Soto, everyone is waiting for the ideal vintage for the Dijons, one that’s cool and slow-ripening. Yet Chile has been seeing warmer vintages of late, he says, pointing out that clones 9 and 16 are well suited to such conditions.

“If you want to continue making Pinot Noir in a Mediterranean climate,” says Soto, “on decomposed granite, in a very arid environment, I think those selections [9 and 16] go very well.”

Cloning the Future of Pinot Noir

High atop a hill midway between the Côte de Beaune and the Côte de Nuits, rows of a mysterious clone of Pinot Noir fan out under the Burgundian sun. Some time ago, French producers set out to find better clones that would result in lower crop levels, lower vigor, and make better wine when planted in Burgundy. This is a huge source of clonal material that the New World has yet to gain access to.

The clones are a prized secret, and virtually nothing about them can be found on the Internet, save one document, written in French, which may now have been taken down, says Adelsheim, who has seen these vineyards in person. The Burgundians paid for the research and development of these clones. They want them, and they don’t want them escaping.

Escape they will, Adelsheim reckons, because what’s good for the Burgundian goose is good for the Oregonian gander. Now the man who helped bring the Dijon clones to Oregon has a new goal: to convince the French that if they don’t release those new clones to the rest of the world, for a fee, someone will just steal them. That’s the world, says Adelsheim. You can’t keep great Pinot under wraps.

When she’s not writing about beverage, travel, or weird science, Julie H. Case can be found deep in America’s forests, foraging for mushrooms.

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