Updated: Oct 30, 2019
Clones, usually left to the realm of dystopian science fiction are generally not a big deal when it comes to wine, and for most of us we never even think of clones when we are slurping our fourth glass of Sangiovese down on a Friday night. Even for the most fevered cork dorks, clones are usually not a serious issue, except for a few varieties, no seems to worry – and even people who really say they care don't generally consider Merlot clones. I know a winemaker who doesn't even know the clone of Shiraz he uses for his premium Shiraz! Clones really get talked about in wine world when it comes to Pinot.
What is a clone?
Ok, some of you know but I will break it down anyway. Get two genetically identical people, place one in Champagne France and the other in the Sahara Desert in Africa, then begin to clone each of them over successive generations while they continue to live in those different environments. What will end happening over many generations are minor genetic mutations to their DNA code caused by the different environment. So, the Champagne clone generations that thrive may become lighter in their skin, perhaps growing more hair and being stockier in build to cope with the environmental challenges associated with a cold climate. The Sahara clone generations that succeed may have darker skin, a leaner frame and less hair to deal with the hot, dry weather. These two clone groups will, apart from their small mutational differences will be identical, genetical closer than siblings despite them perhaps looking, on the outside far more removed than siblings.
When this is applied to Pinot, which has been cultivated for thousands of years in very closed pockets in Burgundy France, each village, vineyard or hill has a different clone. It turns out that the vine is no more prone to genetic variation than any other plant, it is just that farmers used herbaceous reproduction so much over the thousands of years allowing for many generations to exist over a relatively short amount of time.
I hear you say, "Pinot… doesn't he mean Pinot Noir?"
As it turns out Pinot Noir is the dark skin mutation of Pinot, Pinot Blanc the white skin mutation, Pinot Gris/Grigio the grey skin mutation, Pinot Meunier the Millers mutation, and the list goes on. However, inside these darker skin and leaf mutation clones, there are clones. Clones within clones! Each with a different growth habit, leaf and fruit characters, now some of these variations might seem very minor. For example, clone 114 and clone 115 - I know exciting names right – both have a drooping habit, both have small berries, and their bunches are so similar in shape and size I challenge anybody to spot them by eye in the vineyard. Where they differ is in the glass, 114 is cherries and spice, always has excellent berry aromas, but it can lack colour and can be vague on the mid-palate. 115 is slightly more supple with boysenberries, cherries, roses and earth. 114 can be very structural, 115 is silkier and more balanced. 115 is more consistent in character over different sites than 114 is.
So why have all these clones then?
It is about choice for the winemaker. Say the site is perfect for 114, the aromas are fantastic with expressive red cherries and spice, with good tannins, but the winemaker feels that it needs to be more supple, have slightly more savoury characters to balance the fruitiness and tannins of 114. 115 says; "I can provide the suppleness, the colour, and the earthy charters needed for a more complete wine." And Boom! The winemaker has now planted two clones. But why stop there, why not plant some Pommard clone 5 to add a little more earthy notes, with a murshoomy hint, and more tannins. Plant some Wadenwil to add floral complexity to the mix and help balance the wine… as you can see, it goes on. In Burgundy - the home of super expensive Pinot Noir - the best winemakers believe that multiple clones make for a better wine, each clone supports the other, fills in gaps, and the mixed clone approach expresses their vineyard better.
What does this all mean to me?
Well for your regular wine drinker not much, but if you are slightly interested in the intriguing, expensive and often disappointing world of Pinot Noir, it is handy to know. You don't need to have a mental almanac of the clones in your brain, you just need to know that clones play an essential role in the final wine and the expression of the region.
MV6 is widely seen as the "Aussie" clone. Its amazingly dull eye-watering name comes from "Mother Vine 6". First planted in the hunter valley by James Busby as a cutting from Clos Vougeot, it then was released by the CSIRO as MV6 in the 1970s, it then spread forth into the other winegrowing regions of Australia and fast became the most widely planted Pinot clone as well as one of the most successful in Australia. It is typically seen as a clone that performs well in most sites in Australia, although due to its higher tannins and slightly thicker skins can be overly tannic. My favorite MV6 Pinots come from cool maritime climates; Tasmania's coastal regions such as Hounville, and Victoria coastal regions such as Mornington Peninsula, Geelong and parts of Gippsland. This clone is typically red fruit driven, cherries, raspberries, red plums, it has good levels of tannins, and generally, they age well.
Able is what I call "boot" clone. It was smuggled into New Zealand as a cutting in a gumboot from the famed appellation Romanee Conti, it was confiscated by a guy called Abel who worked for quarantine at the time in New Zealand, he took it home and planted it! Hilarious! Anyway, Able is generally seen as a higher acid clone, which should make it ideal for Australian Pinot as Australia's problem is always low acidity levels. It has larger grape bunches than some of the other clones making it naturally higher yielding. It typically makes wines of deep colour with high tannins and acidity, making them very age-worthy. Highly perfumed black fruits; blackberries, boysenberries with some blue fruits like blueberries, more intense in flavours than 114 and 115.
114 and 115
These two Dijon clones have had mixed success in Australia, some winemakers swear by them, but others curse them. 114 seems to perform slightly better in warmer cool regions such as some northern Tasmanian regions. Both of these clones are early ripeners, making them ideal for the coolest sites in Australia. 114 is typically more tannic, with more red fruit and spice characters. 115 is silkier with more rose petals and black fruits, with leather and earth nuances. Both usually make wine than ages in the medium term, with a medium to light body and medium acidity.
D4V2 and D5V12
Again, these are Dijon clones, hence the D at the beginning of their banal names. There is not a vast number of plantings of these 2 clones, I have seen them mostly in the Yarra Valley and Piccadilly Valley, but I'm sure they are elsewhere too. D5V12 is a high yielding clone that requires a little work in the vineyard to control it yields to make quality wines, on the other hand, D4V2 is low vigour naturally low yielding with small bunches. D4V2 characters in wine are typically high tannins, good fruit profile with black and blue fruit playing the loudest tune – blueberries, blackberries with mulberries on bassoon. D5V12 is seen as more elegant, with concentrated berry fruit characters with good levels of acidity and tannins, I feel it has a plummier mouthfeel than D4V2. Both these clones are quite big in style and character and suit ageing.
777 has been around for a while but is starting to become more prominent in the Australian Pinot world. It is typified by its black fruit characters; blackberries, black plums, boysenberries and has great savoury elements for complexity such as tobacco, earth, smoked meats and aniseed. It is seen as a big, bold clone, with a big body and medium tannins, suits ageing. Sometimes in warmer climates, the tannins and boldness of the clone get out of hand. It is grown in many regions in Australia, but in Victoria, MV6 is still mostly preferred.