Wine, etc. : Clonal choices offer Pinot Noir winemakers the opportunity for uniqueness, complexity
Wine lovers have enough to weigh the influence of soil and weather on the quality of their wines. Now comes clones – cuttings taken from an existing vine that are then grafted onto an existing rootstock. It was popularized following the devastation of vineyards caused by phylloxera in the middle of the 19th century. European winemakers grafted American vines onto their diseased vines and saved the industry. However, since then winemakers have gone a step further by introducing clones to create a certain flavor profile.
Each grape variety has clones, but none as much as pinot noir. For years, globetrotting winemakers have been secretly bringing cuttings from historic Burgundy vineyards and propagating them on their own rootstock. It was illegal – and risky – because these cuttings could carry disease. Today, the clones are created and carefully checked by the University of California at Davis before being introduced into the vineyards. Nevertheless, several of the so-called “suitcase clones” continue to exist.
The Swan clone, for example, was a combination of Burgundy and California cuttings from Joseph Swan’s vineyard in Sonoma County. The rest of his trail is pretty muddy. Dijon is another popular pinot noir clone, but there really are several clones of Dijon – 113, 114, 115 give red fruit character while 667, 777 and 828 bring darker fruit to the wine.
Wine lovers rarely get a chance to taste clonal variations because most winemakers like to blend them together to create a pinot noir with a wide range of fruit flavors. However, Bouchaine Vineyards in Napa sells three single-clone Pinot Noirs in addition to a blend. These blocks of monoclones are grown in relatively the same soil and using the same methods so that the differences are focused on the clones.
We had the opportunity to taste these wines with winemaker and general manager Chris Kajani. It was fascinating.
Kajani, who previously made wine at Pahlmeyer and Saintsbury, came to Bouchaine in 2015. She produces small quantities of single-clone Pinot Noir – Swan, Pommard and Dijon – as well as Chardonnay and other wines.
Bouchaine was founded in 1981 by Tatiana and Gerret Copeland. It is in the cooler part of the Carneros region of Napa Valley and benefits from the fog and winds of San Pablo Bay.
The 2019 Swan Clone Pinot Noir, planted in the 1990s, was light in color, which can be misleading as you don’t expect much depth from such a light red wine. However, this one was very fragrant and had flavors of cherry and spice. Its elegance contrasted with the 2019 Pommard Clone Pinot Noir, which darkened the palate with a load of smooth blueberry and plum flavors plus a hint of mocha – all traits Kajani attributes to the clone. The Pommard had less acidity than the Swan but more tannin.
She called the Pommard a “showstopper”. She’s right.
We liked the 2019 Dijon Clone Pinot Noir, the darkest of the three. It showed lovely elegance and structure, along with notes of black cherry, spice and tea rose. It comes from the 667 Dijon clone and has fine tannins and a long finish.
These wines sell for $65 each and are best found on the Bouchaine website.
The 2019 Bouchaine Vineyards Estate Pinot Noir ($40) combines several clones and is excellent value.
It can be argued persuasively that the whole is better than the sum of the parts and that single-clone Pinot Noirs are boring because they taste the same no matter where they are grown. A pinot noir in the hands of a winemaker with many clonal choices has more scope for uniqueness and complexity. We will buy this, but the Bouchaine wines we tasted were different from each other and it made for an enjoyable event.
These wines would make a great holiday gift for the wine lover in your life.
Jordan Winery is one of the mainstays of the modern era of winemaking in the Napa and Sonoma Valleys. Founded in 1972 by Tom and Sally Jordan and releasing their first Cabernet Sauvignon in 1976, the Jordans have been dedicated to creating wines that reflect a distinctive French style. Their wines possess a balance and restraint that sometimes clashes with the current fashion of certain Californian producers where bold fruity expressions and high alcohol degrees flirt with those of heady Port wine. Most vintages from Jordan yield wines of around 13%. Unlike the current fashion for buttered Chardonnays, Jordan limits malolactic fermentation.
We recently tasted two current vintages of Jordan wines and were impressed with their drinkability and adherence to their house style.
The Jordan Chardonnay Sonoma County Russian River Valley 2020 ($40) is definitely European in style with apple and pear notes, firm acidity and no overt oak.
Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma County Alexander Valley 2018 ($60) also reflects the understated, balanced house style with notes of cherry, cassis and plum with a hint of tobacco. Very easy to drink on its own or with a wide variety of cuisines. Wine picks
Reddy Vineyards “The Circle” 2017 Texas High Plains Exclusive Field Blend ($35). Texas is certainly not a heavyweight in wine production in the United States. Not making the top 10 in production, it even ranks behind states like Vermont and Kentucky. Although it has a low production, a recent tasting led us to believe that there was great potential in the quality of their wine. The Texas High Plains AVA holds the greatest potential yet for Texas wine producers, where more than 70% of total tonnage comes from. A blend of eight different French and Italian red grapes creates a formidable complex blend. Ripe cherries and strawberries dominate the wine with some acidity adding interest and liveliness. This wine can be hard to find but worth the effort.
Gary Farrell Pinot Noir Selection Russian River 2020 ($45). From the Russian River Valley, this round, delicious Pinot Noir exudes flavors of black raspberry compote, aromas of violets and herbs, and tantalizing notes of tea and star anise.
Frank Family Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2019 ($60). A bit of Petit Verdot and Merlot go into this ripe, juicy wine with flavors of plums and blackberries and a hint of cloves. Good length and depth.
Tom Marquardt and Patrick Darr have been writing a weekly wine column since 1985. See their blog at moreaboutwine.com. They can be reached at [email protected].