We hear a lot about the many clones of Pinot Noir. We even see some of their names, like Pommard, Wädenswil and 777, listed proudly on wine labels. But there’s also an array of Chardonnay clones in use worldwide.
The world’s most popular white wine, Chardonnay is the progeny of regal Pinot Noir and lesser-known Gouais Blanc. Given the breadth of Chardonnay plantings, it makes sense that the grape’s clones thrive from Champagne to California to Western Australia.
Along with site and climate, these clones play a role in creating the style of Chardonnay in your glass, from full-bodied Napa Valley wines to racy, lean Chablis.
Grape clones are cuttings taken from a single vine that have identical genetic material to their parent source. They can be useful when growers want to cultivate a specific trait or group of traits, like productivity, berry size or acid retention. Climate, soil and other factors determine the success that a particular clone will achieve in a specific location.
These clones share certain similarities to field selections, or what the French call selection massale (massal selection), where a group of plants from a vineyard are cut after harvest and propagated. Ultimately, however, the two diverge.
“There’s inherent genetic variability [with field selections] because you have all those different plants, and they didn’t all come from a single source,” says David Ramey, founder/winemaker at Ramey Wine Cellars, one of California’s premier Chardonnay and Pinot Noir producers.
In the U.S., grape clones are propagated by places like Foundation Plant Services (FPS) at University of California, Davis. Established in 1958 to distribute clean (disease-free) plant material, FPS maintains more than 80 Chardonnay clones, identified by number.
Those names can get confusing, though. Some clones numbered by FPS might have had different numbers before they were heat-treated. Others are referred to colloquially by the producers they originally came from, like the Martini clone, taken from Louis Martini’s vineyard in Carneros, California, or the Robert Young clone, which came from a vineyard of the same name in Alexander Valley.
“In California, you’ve got Clone 4, which as I understand it, used to be 108, which is a selection from Louis Martini’s Carneros vineyard,” says Ramey.
So, some might call this Clone 4, while others might say Clone 108—and it might actually be 108, if it were planted prior to being heat-treated. Others could refer to it as the Martini clone, which could be clones 4, 108, or even 5 and 6. Got it?
Chardonnay Clones in France
Deola’s team works with a wide variety of other clones, as well as massal selections. These clones can have differences in productivity, sugar content and other factors. How productive a clone will be can contribute to its overall ripeness in a particular region.
For example, clones that set more tons per acre will require a warmer climate with more heat units to ripen the fruit. The opposite is true of clones that set smaller crops levels.
“The clones that produce less are logically ripening faster,” says Deola. He says such clones that he works with in Burgundy are 1066, 548 and 1067. “Those produce rich wines with a high, dry extract. They need to be combined with some 76, 95 and 96 to add freshness and tension.”
In Champagne, with its considerably cooler climate and dedication to sparkling wines, winemakers generally use different clones.
“By and large, what Champagne plants is larger-production clones that keep the inherent fruitiness and richness at bay because they don’t really want it,” says David Adelsheim, founder of Adelsheim Vineyard in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.
New World Chardonnay Clones
As he interned in Burgundy in the summer of 1974, Adelsheim noticed the area’s Chardonnay clones ripened at the same time as its Pinot Noir. This occurred several weeks earlier than back home in Willamette.
Inspired, Adelsheim worked with others to bring these clones into the U.S., where they became known as the “Dijon clones,” as they came from the Office National Interprofessionnel des Vins in Dijon, France.
Of those imports, Adelsheim says clones 76 and 95 are now by far the most planted in Oregon.
“[Clones] 76 and 95 both make full-bodied, intensely flavored, relatively low crop-level Chardonnay,” he says, in places like Willamette Valley.
Many winemakers in Chile work with a similar set of clones as Oregon and Burgundy. Historically, however, the Mendoza clone was the most common and is still widely planted today.
“[The Mendoza clone is] a clone of Chardonnay where the size of the clusters is not big,” says Marcelo Papa, chief winemaker at Concha y Toro, one of Chile’s largest labels. “It could be good quality, but not for big production.”
In the 1990s, clones 76, 95 and 548 became more prevalent in Chile. Others, like clones 4 and 5, were relegated largely to higher-production wines.
“We like 548 and 95,” says Papa. “I think that there is more fruit character than the Mendoza clone. Clone 548, it has a very nice precision in the nose in terms of austerity. You can get a very nice mouthfeel.”
Another Chardonnay clone, GinGin, thrives in cool-climate Western Australia. Its origins are unknown, but some of its resulting wines from Margaret River are considered among the world’s best.
“One of the main features of [GinGin] is it has millerandage, or ‘hen and chick,’ ” says Virginia Willcock, winemaker at Vasse Felix, of its irregularly sized fruit.
While some winemakers think there’s a virus infection in GinGin that causes millerandage, Willcock doesn’t care. She believes it results in high-quality wines.
“You get a lovely sense of phenolic tension coming with that clone,” she says. “We get a lot of power to the fruit and flavor in the wine. We think that the clone is a perfect match for the Margaret River climate.”
Meanwhile, California, with a much warmer climate, has an abundance of what’s referred to as the Wente clone. Or, more correctly, the Wente selection.
Wente is not a single clone, but rather a series of field selections. Some were imported in the late 1800s and early 1990s from France and propagated at Wente Vineyards and elsewhere. These are collectively referred to as “Old Wente.” Others are versions of these same clones that were heat treated by UC-Davis to eliminate viruses.
“There’s a lot of variations of Wente,” says Ramey. “I have a slight preference for a good Old Wente selection. You have a small cluster, and you have lower yield.”
Clone 4 is also popular in California. It has high acid, high sugar and high yield. These allow it to ripen more slowly in warmer regions, hanging higher tonnage and retaining acidity.
Site selection, however, is critical.
“You plant Clone 4 on very vigorous soil, you’re going to have football-sized clusters,” says Ramey. “But if you plant it on a site that’s poor in organic material and better drained with a little gravel, you can make a very nice wine.”
Do Clones Matter?
Even as they carefully select and cultivate their Chardonnay clones, many winemakers point out the numerous other factors that affect what grows well and where.
Ramey says clones are important, but they’re “not the overarching factor in quality by any way you look at it, which would be climate.” Rather, he says, think about clones as equally important to other vineyard design criteria, like rootstock, spacing, trellising and canopy management.
Concho y Toro’s Papa says that site trumps all. “For me, much, much more important than the clone is the place. Ten to 1.”
Papa also stresses the significance of rootstock, since winemakers often graft grapevines onto it to help resist various pests and diseases.
“If you give me five good clones of Chardonnay—76, 95, 548, a massale selection, whatever you choose . . . I will choose the rootstock,” he says.
Why? Because of the way rootstock interacts with the soil.
“For many, many years we’ve been looking at the climate, which is important,” says Papa. “We’ve been looking at the clonal material, but we forget the vase. The vase is in the soil.”
Perhaps one day, like clones, rootstock names will be proclaimed on a wine label near you.