By Tom Marquardt and Patrick Darr
Wine enthusiasts have enough on their hands to weigh the influence of soil and weather on the quality of their wines. Now comes the clones – cuttings taken from an existing vine that are then grafted onto existing rootstock. This was popularized following the devastation of vineyards caused by phylloxera in the mid-19th century. European winemakers grafted American vines to their diseased ones and saved the industry. However, since then winemakers have gone one step further by introducing clones to craft a certain flavor profile.
Every grape variety has clones, but none as many as pinot noir. For years, globe-trotting winemakers were secretly bringing back cuttings from Burgundy’s storied vineyards and propagating them onto their own rootstock. It was illegal – and risky – because these cuttings could carry diseases. Today, clones are created and carefully monitored by the University of California at Davis before being introduced to the vineyards. Nonetheless, several of the so-called “suitcase clones” continue to exist.
The Swan clone, for instance, was a combination of Burgundian and California cuttings from Joseph Swan’s vineyard in Sonoma County. The rest of its trail is pretty muddy. Dijon is another popular pinot noir clone but there are really several Dijon clones – 113, 114, 115 provide red fruit character while 667, 777 and 828 bring darker fruit to the wine.
Wine enthusiasts rarely get a chance to taste clonal variations because most winemakers like to blend them to create a pinot noir with a broad array of fruit flavors. However, Bouchaine Vineyards in Napa sells three single-clone estate pinot noirs in addition to a blend. These blocks of single-clones are grown in relatively the same soil and using 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 is making small quantities of single-clone pinot noirs — 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 Napa Valley’s Carneros region and benefits from fog and winds from San Pablo Bay.
The 2019 Swan Clone Pinot Noir, planted in the 1990s, was light in color, which can be deceiving because you don’t expect much depth from a red wine so light. However, this one was very perfumy and had cherry, spice flavors. Its elegance was in contrast with the 2019 Pommard Clone Pinot Noir, which clobbers the palate with a load of unctuous 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 off some nice elegance and structure, plus black cherry, spice and tea rose notes. It is made from the 667 Dijon clone and has fine tannins and a long finish.
These wines sell for $65 apiece and are best found at Bouchaine’s web site.
The 2019 Bouchaine Vineyards Estate Pinot Noir ($40) combines several clones and is a great value.
One can argue persuasively that the whole is better than the sum of the parts and that single-clone pinot noirs are boring because they taste alike no matter where they are grown. A pinot noir in the hands of a winemaker with many clonal choices has more opportunity for uniqueness and complexity. We’ll buy that, but the Bouchaine wines we tasted were different amongst themselves and that made for an enjoyable event.
These wines would make for a good holiday gift for the wine enthusiast in your circle.
Jordan Winery is one of the bedrock anchors of the modern era of winemaking in Napa and Sonoma Valleys. Founded in 1972 by Tom and Sally Jordan and releasing their first cabernet sauvignon in 1976, the Jordans have stuck to creating wines that reflect a distinctive French style. Their wines possess a balance and restraint that sometimes clashes with the current fashion of some California producers where bold fruit expressions and elevated alcohol levels flirt with those of heady port wine. Most Jordan vintages result in wines in the 13 percent range. Bucking the current fashion of buttery 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.
The Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma County Alexander Valley 2018 ($60) also reflects the restrained, balanced house style with cherry, cassis and plum notes with a hint of tobacco. Very easy to drink by itself or with a wide variety of cuisines.
Reddy Vineyards “The Circle” Proprietary Field Blend Texas High Plains 2017 ($35). Texas is certainly not a heavy hitter in wine production in the United States. Not making the top ten in production, it even ranks behind states such as Vermont and Kentucky. Even though it has low production, a recent tasting led us to believe that there is great potential in their wine quality. The Texas High Plains AVA shows the greatest potential so far for Texas wine producers where over 70 percent of total tonnage originates. A blend of eight different French and Italian red grapes creates a terrific complex blend. Ripe cherries and strawberries dominate the wine with a bit of tartness that added interest and liveliness. This wine may be hard to source but is worth the effort.
Gary Farrell Russian River Selection Pinot Noir 2020 ($45). From the Russian River Valley, this round and delicious pinot noir exudes black raspberry compote flavors, violet and herbal aromas and tantalizing hints of tea and star anise.
Frank Family Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2019 ($60). A little petit verdot and merlot goes into this ripe and juicy wine with plum and blackberry flavors and a hint of clove. Good length and depth.