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Pinot noir clones: the basics


Almost all wine is made from a single species of grape – Vitis vinifera. Over the centuries this one species has mutated and evolved into a myriad of different varieties – the names we all know and love: pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, riesling, and thousands of others. Pinot noir is an especially old variety of grape, probably removed by only a generation or two from the original wild stock of Vitis sylvestris. Pinot noir also happens to be very susceptible to mutation, which has led to an astounding number (in the hundreds) of viable clones of the variety.


Clonal variation is a subtle thing, and something you may not wish to concern yourself with. Often, an obsession with clones leads people to avoid excellent wines in favor of lesser wines that use what they consider to be the ‘best’ clones. Terroir, vintage, and the skill of the winemaker are all much more important in determining the finished product than the specific clone selection. Nonetheless, clones are a fascinating part of the anatomy of pinot noir, and for those truly obsessed with this varietal, they bear some examination.

Perhaps the most important distinction between clones is the ability of a given clone to ripen in a specific climate. So, for example, we see the Wädenswil clone planted throughout Oregon, because it has an aptitude for ripening in cooler climates. The clone developed in Switzerland, after being brought from France in the 1500s, and also has excellent natural disease resistance. In the United States two clonal varietals of Wädenswil are mostly used, out of the UC Davis system – UCD 1A and 2A. In other cases, you will see the prevalence of a workhorse clone that is widely available. This is certainly the case with the Pommard clone from UC Davis, UCD4, which is used in many exceptional wineries in California.

Most often you will see clones blended to combine the best aspects of each. For example, the four ‘best’ Dijon (French) clones are generally agreed to be 114, 115, 667, and 777. All have their own benefits and disadvantages: 777 imparts a great deal of tannin and a rich color; 115 is a workhorse clone with predictable yields that produce powerful wines; 667 has a deep color and a solid structure, but needs to be laid down for years to soften; and 114 is of exceptional quality, but ripening can be very difficult. Many people will therefore blend these four clones to produce reliable, high-quality wines that can age gracefully over time. Someone looking to create a pinot noir with more acid and aromas, that can be drunk younger, might choose to remove 667 from that blend, and instead replace it with a sparkling clone like 292.

Most pinot noir winemakers love to talk about clones, and if you’re interested in this enormous world, just ask questions next time you’re tasting. Find which clones tend to create wines you love, and seek out more of those clones to see how consistent the qualities are from wine to wine.


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