Not all Pinot clones are created equally

Just as oils ain’t oils, not all Pinots are created equally.

A glass of Dalrymple Pinot Noir is almost always an assembly of crushed and fermented fruit from many different vines and vineyards. But the wine can also be a fruit salad of as many as ten different Pinot clones, a heady mix of genes and cultivars that have been carefully selected by viticulturists and winemakers over centuries.

So what’s a clone?

In the early 2000s Dolly the sheep made headlines as the world’s first artificially cloned mammal. A cell from her mother’s udder was placed inside another female sheep and after 434 patient attempts, Dolly was created and born.

The potential to produce exact human replicas not surprisingly frightened people who had watched too many late night B-grade horror movies – after all how many Beyoncés does the world really need?

But this much misunderstood genetic process has been happening in vineyards for centuries. The oldest Pinot clones date back to France in the 14th and 15th centuries, when Burgundian monks – practising survival of the fittest – decided to multiply particular vines that had more positive characteristics than their siblings.

These Pinot clones were selected for vigour and yield, for disease and drought resistance and particularly for wine flavour. They were then carefully multiplied and protected in glasshouses and nurseries and catalogued in leather bound volumes.

When Australia’s relatively young wine industry started in the 1830s, its pioneers brought tried and tested clones from Europe and, after a few years, selected their own Australian clones that met the unique demands of our soils and climate.

It is estimated there are now more than 2000 Pinot clones globally, with at least 200 registered for use, but international trading of the vine material is tightly controlled through quarantine regulations.

At Dalrymple Vineyards, vigneron Pete Caldwell has trialled dozens of clones over the years and has settled on ten that best match the Tasmanian soil type and climate: seven from France (Dijon, Pommard, Beaujolais, Marne), two from Switzerland and one from Griffith, in New South Wales.

But as Pete says there is no such thing as the perfect Pinot clone.

“Clones are just one element of the quality equation,” he says. “It takes time for a vineyard to literally grow into its clone and express its true personality. The French say it is not worth assessing wines from vines under seven or eight years old, until they are physiologically mature. We don’t expect to see significant influences from clones in our wines until about ten years – so it is a game of patience.

“Essentially we are assessing the contribution a clone makes to characteristics such as yield and ripeness – it’s a fine balancing act to determine what is a clonal influence and what is affected by climate and soil.

“We have found that even though some clones do well in France they produce different wine outcomes in Australia and New Zealand.

“For example lots of Pinot in France is made with the Dijon clone 115 – it’s a good all round Pinot clone with medium yield and bunch weight, early ripening and it makes wines that are supple, well balanced, aromatic and age well. Another popular choice is the Dijon clone 114. Again it has medium to low yields and ripens early and it makes wines that are well structured and fruity.

“Our experience is that 115 performs well in the cooler areas of southern Tasmania such as the Coal River while 114 is better in the warmer north around Piper’s River.

“So place is very important – but so is human intervention in vine management and winemaking.”

Peter says the experimentation process never stops and part of his ongoing professional development is visiting France regularly and assessing new clones.

“It’s always good to have other fruit characteristics at our disposal when we are blending the final wine,” he says. “For example the Beaujolais clone D5V12 produces lighter styles of wine and the Marne clone 386 gives structure and ageing potential.

“We have also just planted some new commercially propagated clones from Dijon: ENTAV-INRA 667 and ENTAV-INTRA 943 which both make more aromatic wines with fine, elegant flavours. It will be quite a few years before we see the results of these trials.

“We’re also looking forward to the release in Australia of several other new clones, in particular one from New Zealand nicknamed the Abel clone.

“The irony of the name is that it allegedly comes from one of the original Domaine de la Romanee-Conti clones.

“It was smuggled out of the vineyard and confiscated by authorities then propagated by the enterprising quarantine officer, whose name was Abel.”

So are clones just another thing for wine geeks to compare notes on late at night in wine bars?

“Clonal selection is certainly a fairly precise and scientific part of winemaking,” Pete says.

“But when you see all of those clonal characteristics coming together in a beautifully balanced Pinot Noir after hundreds of years of plant breeding, I must say it is pretty exciting.”