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Iconic California Heritage Clones Continue to Drive Modern Winemaking

An alluring blend of pioneer ambition, meticulous viticulture and dreams of better wine, California heritage clones are those historic grapevines that were collected from the Old World over the past 125 years, identified for beneficial traits (like hearty yields or intense flavors) and then planted in vineyards across the Golden State. This category is dominated by dozens of selections of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, most originally from Burgundy, but there are also a handful of Rhône and Bordeaux clones, as well as examples of lesser-known varieties like Négrette, Pinot Blanc and Valdiguié.

Many of these vines were legally imported during the pre-Prohibition era, whereas others are considered “suitcase clones,” brought in under the radar from famed (though officially unnamed) European vineyards. Regardless of how they got here, many of these heritage clones remain popular choices across California, even as certified international clones—developed and marketed by official European sources and known by names like Dijon and ENTAV and numbers like 667 and 115—rose in availability over the past half-century.

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Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir often leads the clonal conversation. It’s such a challenging grape to grow and has the potential to produce a myriad of flavor profiles based on clonal selection. Much of California’s heritage stock relates to Paul Masson, who left his Burgundian winemaking family in 1878 to become one of the most impactful American vintners. With cuttings rumored to be either from his friend Louis Latour or from the famed Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Masson planted Pinot Noir in the Saratoga hills above San Jose. His protégé, Martin Ray, expanded those vineyards into what is today Mount Eden Vineyards.

“There wasn’t a lot of wood available that was authentic, and a lot of growers didn’t even know what they had,” explains Mount Eden’s winemaker and co-owner, Jeffrey Patterson, of that era, referring to kitchen-sink cuvées labeled as “Burgundy”—despite not having a drop of Pinot. Masson changed that by bringing in true Pinot Noir with his own hands. “He wanted to be true-to-type,” says Patterson.

Historic Mount Eden Pinot Noir Vines 1940's
Mount Eden circa 1950 / Image Courtesy of The Ray Family

When Patterson started at Mount Eden in 1981, the only vines that existed were those Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vines that Ray brought from Masson’s original vineyard plantings. He’s since replanted many clones, both international and heritage, but credits Masson’s original Pinot clone, now called the Mount Eden clone, for giving his wines a long life. “The wines I made in the 1980s are still going strong,” he says.

The Swan clone, developed by Joseph Swan in his Forestville vineyard, may be a close relation to the Mount Eden clone, as the grapes he acquired from a UC Davis experimental vineyard in 1959 are rumored to have originated from the Mount Eden vineyards.

The clone is noted for its quality over quantity. “Joe wouldn’t be happy until you have a vineyard that produced zero grapes,” laughs Swan’s son-in-law Rob Berglund, who took over Joseph Swan Vineyards in 1988. “He was always trying to achieve the mythical ‘Grand Cru-quality’ of Burgundy and thought the only way to do that was to have a vineyard that produced almost nothing.”

Vineyard Team harvesting Pinot Noir
Mount Eden Pinot Noir harvest / Image Courtesy of Jason Tinacci Photography

He sees his late father-in-law’s reasoning, though: “It seems to be one of the few selections out there that’s complete in and of itself—it stands alone in terms of complexity and quality,” says Berglund, noting that Swan’s preference for flavor over profit lives on. “The tonnage is always low, so you have to be willing to sacrifice financially on the growing side to do it.”

Pinot Noir’s Pommard clone is one of the few that has a very clear pedigree: It was personally imported by Dr. Harold Olmo, the renowned UC Davis professor who founded Foundation Plant Services (FPS) in 1951— in large part to catalog California’s heritage clones. Pommard eventually spread all over the west coast throughout the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s—at one point accounting for two-thirds of Oregon’s Pinot.

“For me, Pommard consistently delivers a generous mouthfeel and bolder tannins compared to many other Pinot clones,” says Nicole Hitchcock, head winemaker for J Vineyards & Winery. “[It] displays earthy, spice-driven, darker fruit qualities, lending intrigue and complexity.”

Phil Wente in the Vines
Phil Wente tending his Wente clone Chardonnay / Image Courtesy of Wente Vineyards

Chardonnay

The real reason most clones caught on in California is simple: People planted the vines available to them at the time. Such is the case for the Wente clone of Chardonnay. In 1908, the Wente family planted four acres of their Livermore vineyard with Chardonnay sourced from a nearby property, then imported different Chardonnay vines from Montpellier, France a few years later. The family’s viticultural and winemaking business survived Prohibition (due to their growing grapes for the production of sacramental wines) and their vineyard grew to about 30 acres by the 1940s.

“We probably had the largest Chardonnay planting in California,” says Phil Wente, fourth-generation vintner, whose great-grandfather C.H. Wente and grandfather Ernest Wente, monitored their vineyard for the best-performing vines.

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Then-emerging wineries like Louis Martini, Stony Hill and Hanzell planted the Wente clone around the North Coast throughout the midcentury period. “Those were the most widely planted clones in the early 1960s, through the mid ’70s and even into the ’80s,” says Wente, who believes as much as 75% of the Chardonnay planted in California today is related to his namesake vine. “Day in and day out for us, it’s an outstanding workhorse,” he adds. “It’s stood the test of time.”

Syrah

Gary Eberle was introduced to Australian Shiraz while studying for his Ph.D. at UC Davis, and subsequently Northern Rhône Syrah by the famed Sacramento retailer Darrell Corti. One of his academic advisors was Dr. Olmo, who told Eberle he could find Syrah vines imported from M. Chapoutier on the side of Interstate 80, where they’d recently constructed the freeway through an old university vineyard.

In 1973, Eberle propagated cuttings and two years later planted 20 acres at Estrella River Winery in Paso Robles, adding another 18 acres in 1977. “For years, we were the only source of Syrah,” says Eberle, whose Estrella clone is now planted all over the United States.

“It has only one bad habit that I know of: When it starts to get a touch overripe, the skin gets flaccid and just looks older than it is,” said Eberle. “The berries can look like they’re past their prime, but it makes a very nice, soft wine.”

Mount Eden Pinot Noir Clusters
Mount Eden Pinot Noir clusters / Image Courtesy of Jason Tinacci Photography

Cabernet Sauvignon

Cabernet Sauvignon’s clonal legacy in California stretches back to 1893, when James Concannon imported Cabernet Sauvignon cuttings from Bordeaux’s Château Margaux. According to longtime FPS historian Nancy Sweet, whose digital book Wine Grapes of UC Davis details the fascinating histories of all these heritage clones, the Concannon clones are what “built the Cabernet industry in California.” John Concannon, a fourth-generation Californian vintner, estimates that 80% of California’s 88,000 acres of Cab are planted to the Concannon clones.

“From the beginning, the results were fantastic, as was the timing,” Concannon says. “These clones consistently produce high yields of good quality fruit—and make exceptional wines.”

This article originally appeared in the June/July 2023 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!

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