WineLine No. 16
This month we take on the hot subject of cloning. Vine clones, that is, and how they may revolutionize the wine in your glass. Then we have a howler of a tasting note - yet another example of why every writer should have an editor. And finally, an appreciation of one of the Washington-area's top authorities on Italian wines.
That's when I realized that California vintners had fastened upon yet another way to try and ape Burgundy. Varietal alone didn't do it; neither did new barrels. So now they were using clones to bring them closer to the Holy Grail of winemaking. (A hint when you're at a wine tasting: The safest and easiest way to flatter a Chardonnay or Pinot Noir producer is to say his or her wine tastes "Burgundian." Go any farther, as I have on many occasions, and you risk proving your ignorance.)
Clonal selection is more than a neat marketing gimmick, however. If you doubt me, just ask Christian Roguenant, the outgoing and enthusiastic winemaker at Baileyana Winery in California's Edna Valley. (Yes, he's French. Burgundian, to be precise.) At a recent tasting in Washington D.C. organized by The Henry Group, Baileyana's local distributors, Roguenant sought to persuade enthusiasts and skeptics that the clone of the grape is as important as the varietal.
"Clonal selection represents the future of California wine," Roguenant said. "Ten years from now, the world will be singing about the quality of great Pinot Noir from California."
Other factors contribute to higher quality, of course, including proper site selection of vineyards and new trellising and planting techniques. "But it is mostly clones that will drive the new revolution in quality," Roguenant insists.
About eight years ago, the owners of Baileyana planted experimental plots of various Chardonnay and Pinot Noir clones from France in their estate Firepeak Vineyard. Roguenant was involved in the program from the start and later took over when he became Baileyana's full-time winemaker in 1998. With the 2001 vintage, Roguenant decided to take a clonal dog-and-pony show on the road. He bottled separate lots of four Chardonnays from different clones - two from older vines (Clones 4 and 5, as he called them) that were typical clones used for decades in California, and two (Clones 76 and 96) from Burgundy. He matched that with a similar selection of five Pinot Noir clones. Each were vinified using a neutral (M2) yeast and then stored in neutral oak, so what we were tasting was, as much as possible, attributable to the grapes themselves.
The California clones, 4 and 5, were once highly recommended by the wine gurus at UC Davis because they produced large clusters (about 2 clusters per pound) and large crops, and therefore relatively inexpensive wines. They were the most common Chardonnay clones in the Central Coast region in the '70s and '80s, with the rows typically planted (again on advice from UC Davis) east to west, or perpendicular to the ocean, to promote ventilation. The result, Roguenant explained, was that the southern rows received too much sun and suffered from sunburn, while northern rows or northern sides of rows, received too little and had difficulty ripening.
You can probably tell by now what Roguenant thinks of UC Davis. "They ruined the wine industry with their advice," he said, with some exaggeration. "They were responsible for phylloxera!" That of course was a reference to the AxR-1 rootstock pushed by Davis that proved susceptible to the root louse in the late 1980s and 1990s.
In his next breath Roguenant fairly gushed that "Phylloxera was the best thing that could have happened to us." Why? Because the need to rip vineyards out and replant whole-scale, while expensive, enabled vintners to adopt new trellising and planting techniques - and yes, new clones - all at once rather than piecemeal. We'll soon be seeing greater production per acre because of vines spaced closer together, while quality will improve because of smaller yields per vine. Quality will also improve because of clonal selection.
Now about those Burgundy clones. When the folks at Baileyana replanted Firepeak in 1995, they included Chardonnay clones 76 and 96. The vine rows were planted north to south this time, with greater density to promote competition among the vines for the soil's nutrients. Trellising used the "ballerina" system, which forces some of the foliage down toward the ground to leave the grapes exposed (I think). These clones produce smaller bunches, about five or six to the pound instead of two for clones 4 and 5. They also ripen about three weeks earlier.
Enough geekspeak, you say! What about the wines? Well, they all tasted like Chardonnay. But 4 and 5 were pale in color, while 76 and 96 were richer and golden, promising more just at a glance. Clone 76 offered a citrusy edge with peach, apricot and hazelnut flavors, and something almost like honey on a long finish. Despite this profusion of flavors, Roguenant pronounced it "closed" (Oh, those French! Gotta love 'em!) and said this clone will help the wine age.
Clone 96 seemed a bit earthy to me, pineapple perfumed with clove. The acidity was more noticeable. Clones 4 and 5 were not nearly so aromatic. They were juicy but diluted, with 5 the softest. Each had good balance but held less interest than their French cousins. Roguenant said they were "more evolved."
Roguenant was pouring his 1999 Edna Valley Chardonnay, which he said was about 60% from Clone 76, and about 40% of the total blend saw new oak. Unfortunately that's all I seem to have scribbled down in my notes about it. But at about $20 it's a delicious example of what Roguenant calls a "new style of California Chardonnay." That style will involve less malolactic fermentation (with California's ripeness, excess acid is not the problem it is in Burgundy) and less time in new oak. (Because California's winters, especially in the Central Coast, are warmer than Burgundy's, the wines evolve faster in the winery. They therefore can be bottled sooner.)
"Chardonnay is not all that popular any more," Roguenant said. "People are getting tired of it because we made it so boring. Now I think we'll see a resurgence of interest in Chardonnay because of the new style."
I've prattled on long enough that I'll just summarize the Pinot Noir clonal tasting. What you may have in mind as "California" Pinot of a certain age was probably primarily the "Martini" clone - "a big producer, but it tastes like stewed tomato," Roguenant said - or Clone 2A from Germany (Huh?!!). Back in the late 1980s, Roguenant and Ken Brown, then winemaker at Byron, traveled to Burgundy and decided the key to success was clones with the poetic names of 667, 777 and Pommard, with similar results as in the Chardonnay tasting.
The result, as evidenced in the finished product of the 1999 Baileyana Edna Valley Pinot Noir (about $23), was rich and focused, with spicy cherry flavors that unravel on the palate to reveal soft, lush tannins. An excellent medium-weight red that avoids the candied aspect that annoys detractors of California Pinot.
"In a few years, winemakers in Burgundy will discover that we are making Pinot Noir at $25-$30 a bottle that would cost $50-$60 for the same quality from Burgundy," Roguenant predicts, with just a hint of a French accent to his "Yankee Doodle Dandy." It will be fun to verify his prediction.
Postscript: The Baileyana Syrah is pretty damn good, too.
The "More Than I Really Needed to Know" Department - We all place different expectations on our wines that may affect how we evaluate them - a nice wine mismatched with an entrée or a simple mouth rinse wasted on a special occasion, for example. But one writer of an e-mail newsletter may have been asking too much when he dissed a particular wine - and I swear I am not making this up:
"It didn't make my wife or me want to have sex so we won't buy it again."
It only cost $7, so at least we know she's not a cheap date.
In Memoriam: Michael R. Downey - Those of you outside the Washington area may not have had the pleasure to know Mike Downey. DC-area wine lovers know him as a keen palate and an expert on Italian wines. He started in the business 30 years ago at Mayflower Wine and Spirits, a top retailer of Italian wines. After several years at the wholesale and import level, Mike created "Michael R. Downey Selections" in 1998 and carefully built a top-notch portfolio of smaller, as-yet-unknown producers that delivered great value for the price.
Mike passed away February 13 from cancer at age 53. He will be sorely missed. I relied on him whenever I had questions about Italian wines, first as a consumer and then as a writer. It didn't matter to him that my readership was small or spread beyond the area where he sold wines. He was always generous with his time and wisdom, and he made sure I had an opportunity to taste what he was talking about.
"Michael R. Downey Selections" will continue under the stewardship of Mike's wife, Peggy, their son, Brennan, and daughter, Shannon. They honored him with a going away party at a favorite Italian restaurant. It seemed fitting that Mike left his friends with great food, wonderful wines, smiles on our faces and tears in our eyes.
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