Heritage Clones

Last week I snuck away from the Masters of Wine Residential Seminar in Napa for a morning in Sonoma with the Vineyard Operations Manager of Paul Hobbs Winery, Scott Zapotocky. I was surprised and impressed to hear him talking about “heritage” clones of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay as we began touring the vineyards with my fellow MW, Jean Reilly. Toward the end of the tour, Scott did mention three Dijon clones, almost apologetically. “After all,” he sighed, “not every clone works well in every vineyard.” He followed on saying, “Paul really likes to use ‘heritage’ clones.” Calera, Swan and Mt. Eden are among their Pinot Noir selections and Wente, Bato and Rudd are among the Chardonnay plantings.

What a nice contrast to most North American winemakers who are so focused on Dijon clones they sometimes even include the clone numbers in the wines’ names! When Dijon clones hit the US in the late 1980s, they soared to stardom, where they remain. Dijon clones are the result of the work of Raymond Bernard, the father of clonal selection in Burgundy’s vineyards. Bernard spent years dedicated to cleaning up Burgundy’s virus-affected vineyards after World War II by carefully choosing and propagating clean vine material.

Across the Atlantic, California’s vineyards were also exhibiting a high incidence of disease. It’s easy to see the link now: when American vineyards were replanted after the Great Depression, many plants came from Europe because of the large demand. The problem became so pressing that in 1948 the USDA banned direct imports and required that new vines be studied under quarantine before being released into the fields. Until the late 1970s, the focus on clones was simply to find and propogate clean vine material. Vineyard managers simply ordered “Pinot Noir” and “Chardonnay” from nurseries. They weren’t yet focused on clones.

However, once viticulturalists and research scientists finally managed to clean up the vineyards, they began to look at clones differently. They began seeking out specific aromatic and organoleptic properties as well as investigating vineyard compatibility. So, when Dijon clones hit the US in the late 1980s, Californians and Oregonians were primed with excitement to use these new materials. What vine geek wouldn’t be?

In the resulting craze to experiment with the latest and seemingly greatest, California’s “heritage clones” – those not from the clean stock program – fell out of favor in many vineyards. However, they are still around, and they do have many fans. Their properties are just as diverse and as exciting as Dijon clones. And, mind you, they all came from France at some point! I think it’s terrific that Paul is a proponent, and I hope to see more talk of heritage clones surfacing in the market.