I've always been fascinated with pinot noir clones. Winemakers seem to use them like weapons, dispatching them to create a certain flavor profile that adapts well to their terroir. Clonal selection isn't unique to pinot noir, but it certainly is popular.
Not as popular is clonal massale, an ancient but once traditional practice of interbreeding clones. It is after all the process used to create cabernet sauvignon, a cross between cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc. Without such a daring clonal massale, we wouldn't have today the most ubiquitous grape variety in the world.
Yesterday I met with Luisa Ponzi, winemaker at Ponzi Vineyards in the Willamette Valley. She inherited from her father a 2-acre vineyard that with the help of wine pioneer Dick Erath and Oregon State University was planted in 1975 with 22 clones in Ponzi's Abetina Vineyard. The idea was to tag each of the clones and study their performance. But Luisa, who came to know clonal massale while she was studying in Burgundy in the 1990s, decided to use those vines to create a monster -- well, a nice monster.
She loved the intensity of the pinot noir made from the experimental Abetina Vineyard, so she expanded the vineyards planted to clonal massale to 30 acres. Five Dijon clones are blended with the original 22 heritage clones at the Avellana Vineyard.
So what did this accomplish in the bottle? Pinot noirs made with a single clone can have a monolithic flavor profile -- predictable and outstanding when the juice is blended with that from another clone. However, like natural yeast is unpredictable but brilliant, clonal massale creates variety and surprise.
The variety is evident in the vineyard. Leaves vary in shape and color, grape clusters are of different sizes and color. Doesn't this lead to uneven ripening?
Luisa says yes, but adds; "The overripe berries compensate for the underripe and they balance themselves out."
The grapes are picked at the same time and fermented as a single lot.
The wines from clonal massale have a broad flavor profile that is uniqe from the pinot noirs made with a combination of a few clones.
The 2014 Ponzi Abetina Vineyards Pinot Noir ($105) made from the 22 original clones that were part of the 1975 experiment. Aged in oak (50 percent new) for 20 months, it exudes complexity and depth. Black cherry flavors are accented with hints of cinnamon, nutmeg and chocolate. Luisa says it is her favorite pinot noir.
The 2014 Ponzi Avellana Pinot Noir ($105) is made from the experimental Chehalem Mountains vineyard, planted in 2006 with randomly space Pommard and heirloom clones, has plum notes and more serious tannins with Asian spices.
Ponzi, one of the oldest wineries in the Willamette, makes great pinot noirs across the board. But these two, albeit expensive, are extraordinary.
Will other winemakers adopt clonal massale? Luisa says many come out to see the site and taste the wine, but the risk of experimentation discourages them.