A Wine Geek’s Guide to Pinot Noir Clones Around the World

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No other grape variety attracts as much clone talk as Pinot Noir, for all the right and wrong reasons. To unpack that chatter, it helps to strip out the myths and explore the history and future of clonal selection.

Why do winemakers use clones?

In the late 19th century1, phylloxera, a devastating insect that destroys vine roots, befell European vineyards and changed how growers planted and cultivated grapevines. Rather than propagate the vines by rooting a branch from a neighboring vine or cutting, growers grafted their European vines, called Vitis vinifera, onto rootstocks imported from America that were resistant to the pest.

This prompted mass replanting that required vast amounts of European vines to be grafted onto American rootstocks. Initially, some grafting2 spread diseases. Both yields and quality of these newly planted, grafted vines varied. The need for reliability and consistency spurred several valuable vine breeding and propagation programs throughout Europe.

Massal versus clonal selection

Clone 115 in an ATVB trial vineyard showing the tighter bunch structure and fuller berries
Clone 115 in an ATVB trial vineyard showing the tighter bunch structure and fuller berries / Photo by Anne Krebiehl

Before and after phylloxera, European growers devoted to quality would select their best vines for propagation3. They’d observe vines for years, select them for particular traits and propagate the grouping, a  process known as massal selection. This is still practiced widely today.

But even carefully chosen, virus-free, sanitarily grafted vines had unpredictable traits, like variable yield or uneven ripening. So, researchers developed a new process. They took cuttings from vines with specific and desirable traits. They’d graft them, plant them and watch to see if they carried the desired traits.

If so, they’d propagate cuttings from those vines again through several generations. All the cuttings could be traced directly to the initial mother vine, and all shared the same DNA. Clonal selection was born.

The practice began in Germany during the 19th century, but was fully established by the 1920s4. Clonal selection is a slow, costly process that requires years of observation and propagation. It enables growers to plant vines with reliable and predictable traits.

The evolving aims of clonal selection in Pinot Noir

Initially, clonal selection allowed growers to ensure commercially viable yields for fussy varieties like Pinot Noir. But throughout the 20th century, the aims of clonal selection evolved in tandem with other preoccupations of the times.

When the official French clonal selection for Pinot Noir began in the 1950s5, the climate was cooler. Growers needed to ensure that grapes would ripen sufficiently, so they selected traits like good sugar accumulation and early ripening.

What Are Grape Clones?

Later, once ripening was ensured, traits that improved wine quality like color, stability and tannin structure became important, too.

In Germany, where official clones had been developed much earlier, growers tended to prioritize Pinot Noir clones that grew in looser bunches on the vine, because those grapes were less susceptible to botrytis rot. By the late 1980s and ’90s, both French and German selections focused on aromatic intensity alongside previously selected traits.

France gets official with the Dijon clones

The first official French clones6 of Pinot Noir were released in 1971, numbered from 111 to 115. Under licensed production, they were guaranteed to be virus-free. Clones 114 and 115 are still widely used today.

The series 665 to 668, which contains the famous 667, was released in 1980; series 743, the famous 777, 778, 779 and 780 was released in 1981. In the late 1980s, clones 828, 871 and 943 debuted.

Collectively, they’re referred to as “Dijon clones,” after the French town in Burgundy. Available in the U.S. since 1987, the Dijon clones are now licensed to nurseries worldwide7. They’re prized for their reliability, structure and Burgundian origin.

According to the French Chamber of Agriculture8, 114 and 115 are appreciated for perfume and structure. Number 667 is known for aromatic and tannic finesse, while 777 offers a combination of finesse and power. Balance is the calling card of 828, and concentration and sometimes atypical aromas are hallmarks of 943.

Names, numbers and confusion

A Pinot Noir collection in the ATVB Greenhouse in Beaune, France
A Pinot Noir collection in the ATVB Greenhouse in Beaune, France / Photo by Anne Krebiehl

Long before these French selections were released9, California tried to ensure virus-free vines. Starting in the 1940s, Dr. Harold Olmo10 of the University of California, Davis, began to import Pinot Noir vines from France, Germany and Switzerland. He also selected cuttings in California from pre-Prohibition vineyards. His work would eventually morph into UC-Davis’s Foundation Plant Services (FPS)11, founded in 1958.

As FPS evolved, methods to heat-treat cuttings were developed to make material virus-free. Cuttings imported from Europe and selected in California were heat-treated and propagated, then numbered as clones that farmers could buy.

Olmo’s oldest documented Pinot Noir import was a 1951 cutting from Pommard, a village in Burgundy12. It was propagated and made available for planting as UCD4. Once antivirus heat-treatment became available, its offspring became UCD5 and UCD6. They were also found to contain viruses, however, so UCD91 was created from the original UCD4. All of them are known under their numbers, or as “Pommard.”

No wonder there is confusion.

In the 1960s, California used “clones” as a way to plant virus-free material, rather than to achieve specific traits. Nonetheless, Pommard is at the heart of many Pinot Noirs from California and Oregon, appreciated for its “intense fruit and spice13.” It’s a testament to Olmo’s pioneering work.

The other key clones from this period were UCD01A, UCD02A and UCD03A, which stemmed from the good-yielding and perfumed Wädenswil clones that Olmo imported from Switzerland in 1952. Another key clone, Mariafeld 2, came from a private nursery in Switzerland in 196614. It became known as UCD17 and 23. It’s still used today, appreciated for its freshness and botrytis resistance.

Californian heritage: Martini, Mount Eden, Swan, Calera

The Martini clones15, UCD13 and UCD15, were selected by Olmo and winery owner Louis M. Martini in an experimental vineyard they planted in Carneros, with cuttings taken from a 1930s Niebaum-Coppola vineyard in Napa Valley.

Later selections became UCD66 and UCD75. However, massal selections were also taken in that experimental vineyard. Those became known as Martini selections, rather than isolated clones, yet another source of confusion.

The Essential Guide to Pinot Noir

Mount Eden selections stem from their namesake vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains. It was planted in 1943 by Martin Ray16 with cuttings taken from Paul Masson’s La Cresta vineyard planted in 1895–1896, which was itself planted from cuttings said to be straight from Burgundy. The selection is prized for its small berries and aromatic intensity. Only one clone was selected from Mount Eden by famous Russian River winemaker Meredith Edwards. It became UCD37.

Swan selections were taken from Joseph Swan’s vineyard in the Forestville area of Sonoma County, apparently a mix of Burgundian and Californian cuttings planted in 1969. The exact origins of the vines are shrouded in myth. The clone UCD97 was isolated there. Calera selections are from Josh Jensen’s Jensen vineyard planted on Mount Harlan, in San Benito County, in 197417 . The origin of the cuttings is also rumored to be Burgundian.

Myths and mutations

One enduring myth about Pinot Noir is that it mutates more frequently than other varieties. Is there any truth to it?

“As far as I know, no scientific study has ever shown that a specific molecular mechanism would make Pinot more prone to mutations than other grape varieties,” says grape geneticist José Vouillamoz, Ph.D.

“Nevertheless, it is certainly one of the oldest grape varieties in the world, therefore it had plenty of time to accumulate somatic mutations and epigenetic modifications.”

Epigenetic modifications are how genes express themselves to their environment. For example, all flamingos have the same DNA, but depending on their food or environment, they can appear whitish, pale pink or bright pink18.

Pinot Noir has a similarly strong epigenetic response. The same clone planted in different vineyards can look distinctly different. The genes themselves haven’t changed, just their expression.

Before genetic identification was possible, scientists could only rely on observation. This is probably why they thought Pinot Noir was so mutation-happy, and it may also account for the variety of traits that Pinot Noir shows.

It also explains why clonal selection takes years of repropagation and observation before a clone can be certified. The same thinking gave rise to the idea that the heritage selections, with their long presence in California, must have mutated into something truly distinct. Until we genetically sequence them all, we won’t know.

Clones today—and tomorrow

Today, winemakers spend a lot of time weighing the pros and cons of clones, depending on the style of wine they want to make. It’s an imperfect science, however, because it encompasses so many variables.

“It is difficult to get a good feel for the true character of a clone when the site and the winemaker tend to make a strong impression,” says Nick Peay, of Peay Vineyards in Annapolis, California. “Not only is it exceedingly rare to taste a single clone out of a neutral barrel, [but] if the winemaker favors excessive ripeness, that will obscure the true character of the clone.”

Nick and his brother, Andy Peay, planted seven Pinot Noir clones and heritage selections in 1998. Today, they grow up to 13.

“Choices were just experiments, hunches, working with the best available information, limited though that may be,” says Nick.

Some wineries plant huge blocks of single clones in search of predictability and even ripening. Yet, such a mono-clonal practice can also mean a loss of diversity and resilience.

Other wineries prefer to plant a massal selection, or a mix of clones. Nigel Greening, owner of Felton Road Estate in Central Otago, New Zealand, planted his Cornish Point Vineyard with 18 different clone and rootstock combinations.

“Cornish Point is now 20 years old and we learned a lot from it, mainly that finding favorites is quite tricky,” he says. “We like different material for different reasons. [It gives] different flavors, different ripeness levels, different phenolic character.

“So, rather than asking what is best, you ask, what makes an interesting gang?”

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In Burgundy, France, the Association Technique Viticole de Bourgogne (ATVB), an official agency of the agricultural chamber, has shifted its approach to clonal selection. Preserving biodiversity and adapting to climate change are key.

The ATVB scouts, observes and selects vines across Burgundy to find the widest diversity of positive characteristics. These include traits that were previously shunned, like slow sugar accumulation or high acidity.

Observed and propagated over years, these individual clones form part of ATVB’s grouped selections, graded into Pinot superieur with good, stable yields, versus less stable Pinot fin yields, and Pinot très fin, with very low yields. These clones are never sold individually, only as part of an ever-adapting selection.

Of course, today’s growers have several options. There are certified German, Swiss and Italian clones of Pinot Noir, too.

Do Clones Matter?

Clones are a huge viticultural achievement and play a significant role in modern winegrowing and also help to meet the challenges of climate change. Observation, diversity and the preservation of a wide gene pool are key.

Ultimately, clones are only one part of a vast matrix of elements that find their way into your glass. They only add to Pinot Noir’s infinite allure.

 

  1. Robinson, J. and Harding, J., The Oxford Companion to Wine, Fourth Edition, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2015
  2. See same phylloxera entry but also Boidron, Robert, Le Livre du Pinot Noir, Lavoisier, Paris, 2016
  3. Schöffling, Harald, Pioniere der Klon-Züchtung bei Weinreben in Deutschland, Schriften zur Weingeschichte Nr. 138, Wiesbaden, 2001
  4. Schöffling, Harald, Pioniere der Klon-Züchtung bei Weinreben in Deutschland, Schriften zur Weingeschichte Nr. 138, Wiesbaden, 2001 – Ökonomierat Gustav Adolf Froelich was the first to observe, select, vegetatively propagate, replant and repropagate vines from a sinlge own-rooted high quality Silvaner vine in Edenkoben, Pfalz. The first clonal vineyard of these Silvaner clones was planted in 1900, the first clone was officially recognized in 1921 and registered in 1925.
  5. Boidron, Robert, Le Livre du Pinot Noir, Lavoisier, Paris, 2016
  6. Boidron, Robert, Le Livre du Pinot Noir, Lavoisier, Paris, 2016 all data on page 84 but also available via ENTAV/INRA
  7. Haeger, John Winthrop, North American Pinot Noir, University of California Press, Berkeley 2004–page 137
  8. Boidron, Robert, Le Livre du Pinot Noir, Lavoisier, Paris, 2016, table on pages 86/87
  9. Haeger, John Winthrop, North American Pinot Noir, University of California Press, Berkeley 2004
  10. Haeger, John Winthrop, North American Pinot Noir, University of California Press, Berkeley 2004
  11. UC-Davis’s Foundation Plant Services
  12. Nelson-Kluk, Susan, History of Pinot noir at FPS, FPS Grape Program Newsletter, October 2003
  13. Haeger, John Winthrop, North American Pinot Noir, University of California Press, Berkeley 2004, page 139
  14. Haeger, John Winthrop, North American Pinot Noir, University of California Press, Berkeley 2004, page 139
  15. Haeger, John Winthrop, North American Pinot Noir, University of California Press, Berkeley 2004, pp 141-145
  16. Mount Eden
  17. Calera Wine
  18. Technology Networks
Published on August 26, 2020
Topics: Wine and Ratings