Attack of the (Pinot) clones!

Anyone who knows me is well aware of the fact that I really enjoy Pinot Noir. I like plenty of other varietals too, but Pinot will always have a special place in my heart simply because it is “the wine that got me into wine.” In 2006, Joe and I tried an ’04 Lazy Creek, and it was a wake-up call. Wines could be better than Two Buck Chuck or Pepperwood Grove? It was a revelation!

(Funnily enough, back then we could buy a bottle of Lazy Creek for $27, a total steal for decent Pinot Noir. Today, a bottle will set you back closer to $45 to $50. A bottle of their red table wine is like $25-30 at Whole Foods. As much as Lazy Creek holds a special place in our heart, we’ve moved on to other producers.)

About a week and a half ago, I was lucky enough to attend a Pinot clones tasting at Crushpad. My old buddy Stu had made me an offer I couldn’t refuse: come down  and help work the tasting (checking attendees in, pouring wines, helping with cleanup afterwards) and I could sit in on the tasting for F.R.E.E. He didn’t have to ask me twice. I was so there.

Unique to this tasting was the fact that a lot of industry folk attended, mostly because a tasting like this is hard to come by. The point of the tasting was to pit different clones of Pinot Noirs against one another–with as many winemaking variables taken out of the equation as possible–to get a sense of each clones’ individual characteristics. Pinot Noir has hundreds of different clones, some producing stellar finished wine, and some not so much. The other interesting thing about Pinot clones (and all varietal clones, really) is that where they were grown will absolutely affect the finished product. That emphasis on the importance of place is little term you’ve probably heard before:

At this tasting, all the wines had been aged in neutral oak, meaning barrels that were 3 to 4 years old. By doing this, we could eliminate most of the influence that new oak has on Pinot, so that the grapes could really speak for themselves. All the wines were also fermented with RC-212 yeast, a common yeast used for making Pinot Noir. During the first flight, we would be tasting Clone 115 grown at Amber Ridge Vineyard (Russian River Valley), Hein Vineyard (Anderson Valley), La Encantada Vineyard (Sta. Rita Hills), and Lone Oak Vineyard (Santa Lucia Highlands). For the second flight, we’d be comparing different varieties of Heritage clones; the three pours would each feature the Calera Clone, Swan Clone and 2A Clone. For the third and final flight, we’d taste different clones grown in the same AVA: the Pommard clone, Clone 667, Clone 777 and Clone 828 in this flight had all been grown in Sonoma Coast (the Pommard was from the Durrell Vineyard, the other three from Gap’s Crown Vineyard).

Whew. That’s a lot to take in.

It was also a lot to get through in just an hour and a half, so everyone had to get to tasting, stat.

Once I settled in and had a few bites of bread (okay, and brie…I know, way to keep my palate clean), the wine was a-flowing. Here are some scriblings from my tasting notes:

ROUND ONE

(I forgot to write any texture notes on this first flight)

Clone 115 from Amber Ridge

  • Color: light maroon
  • Aroma: light raspberry; deep spice; light smoke
  • Flavor: deep; heavy spice; dark bramble fruits; good acidity
  • Clone 115 from Hein

  • Color: deep blushing magenta
  • Aroma: white pepper; moist soil; stones, lighter fruit –> minerality
  • Flavor: cumin? light brambles; spice on the finish
  • Clone 115 from La Encantada

  • Color: deep maroon
  • Aroma: white pepper, barnyard, Pledge, lemon, preserved lemon peel
  • Flavor: Pledge; lemon; dust; very flat; dull finish
  • Clone 115 from Lone Oak

  • Color: magenta
  • Aroma: following the third wine, smells like ripe apricot, plum
  • FlavoR: cherry; light spice; pretty simple
  • Winner: Amber Ridge, simply because the spice in the wine was unmatched. It was the only wine of the bunch with any complexity.

    ROUND TWO

    Heritage (Calera Clone)

  • Color: maroon
  • Aroma: flat; basement, stone; dank
  • Flavor: spice on finish; deep, brooding fruit
  • Texture: fuller bodied; stronger
  • Heritage (Swan Clone)

  • Color: light maroon
  • Aroma: fig; prune; date; candied, jam like; huge fruit bomb
  • Flavor: tastes like smell; deep, concentrated fruit
  • Texture: light bodied
  • Heritage (2A Clone)

  • Aroma: cedar; slightly candied; raspberry jam
  • Flavor: starts fruity, with a light woody note; acidic finish; light spice
  • Texture: light bodied
  • Winner: Meh. Not a fan of any of them. Like Stu said, most of these clones have a stronger back, and are much meatier–they’re not the delicate Pinot you normally think of. Definitely a blending wine.

    ROUND THREE

    Sonoma Coast Pommard

  • Color: garnet with tinges of burnt sienna
  • Flavor: boring; flat
  • Sonoma Coast 667

  • Aroma: candy on the front; good spice on the finish
  • Texture: [from Chris] tannins run down center of mouth, parallel to acid
  • Sonoma Coast 777

  • Flavor: dark; candy
  • Sonoma Coast 828

  • Flavor: jammy
  • Winner: the 667, just because of the texture.

    So, as we can all see, my tasting notes got more spare as the evening went on. This is a good thing, because if I remember correctly, I made a few friends at my table, and I had started talking a lot more than I was writing.

    It was amazing to taste how different all these clones were. And I think the moral of the story to the evening was BLENDING. Though none of the wines on their own were especially interesting, mixing bits of this one or that one created something entirely better. Imagine adding in a bit of new oak, and you’d have a whole ‘nother animal.

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