Clones and Suitcases: Pinot Noir in the Willamette Valley

Pinot clonesToday’s offer on rare “Heritage Pinots” from Patricia Green Cellars includes two made from Pinot Noir’s Wadensvil and Coury Clones, clones that arrived early in the Willamette Valley’s history. So, you might ask, what’s all the fuss about Pinot Noir “clones”? So glad you asked!

A Primer on Grape Vine Propagation
Grape vines intentionally produce seeds that are genetically different from their parent plant. It’s a defense mechanism – when a bird or bear eats a grape, wanders around, and then “deposits” the undigested seed with plenty of fertilizer so it can start a new plant, the new plant will have different characteristics than its parent. Which means it can thrive in different soils and climates and not be susceptible to the same diseases.

But it also means the grapes taste different and make different wine. So, for centuries, grape growers have planted new vineyards not by seed, but instead by taking cuttings from vines and vineyards that already produce good wine. Over the centuries, some “flavors” of each varietal – e.g. Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, etc. – were identified as being especially good for wine growing. So those flavors of vine – or “clones” – were preferred for taking cuttings and planting new vineyards.

Whether it’s because Pinot Noir is more susceptible to genetic mutation than other grape varietals or because it’s older than almost grape varietals, there are more identified clones of Pinot Noir in production around the world than almost any other grape. And, since the 1960s, these clones have been identified, given numbers and names, and offered for sale by nurseries to folks who want to plant a vineyard.

However, a vine from a “good” clone is not necessarily a great scion from which to plant a vineyard. Individual grape vines can catch viruses that impact vigor, yield, and ripening. If you use a virused grape vine as the source of your cuttings for planting your vineyard, then you’re going to have virus in all the vines.

David-Lett-with-cuttings-from-UC-Davis-2x

David Lett

From Burgundy to Willamette
When David Lett decided to plant the first modern Pinot Noir vineyard in the Willamette Valley back in 1965, he turned to the nursery at California’s UC Davis. At the time, Davis had the one and only stock of non-virused Pinot Noir available for propagation in the entire USA. It was a Burgundian Pinot Noir clone that had been isolated and cleared of virus at nursery in Wädenswil, Switzerland. They called it UCD 1A, but it soon became commonly known as the Wadensvil clone.

Lett loaded up his car with Wadensvil, drove south, and planted what would become Eyrie Vineyards. A few years later, Dick Erath and Charles Coury acquired the newly de-virused UCD 4 clone at Davis, a selection of Pinot Noir that originated in Burgundy’s Pommard vineyards. Erath, Lett, and others soon found that Wadensvil and Pommard were highly complementary, with Wadensvil giving floral aromatics and bright red fruit to match Pommard’s dark, earthy, character and higher levels of tannins.

So, through the 1980s, the vast majority of new Willamette Valley vineyards were planted to mixtures of Wadensvil and Pommard.

Charles Coury

Charles Coury

Coury Clone: A “Suitcase Selection?”
At the same time, growers were also planting what came to be known as “Coury Clone.” Charles Coury liked to claim that planting Pinot in the Willamette Valley was his idea. It wasn’t, but he did come to the Valley with Dick Erath in the late 1960s after completing his Masters at UC Davis and spending a year at the Colmar Research Station in Alsace, France.

First with Erath and then on his own, he ran a nursery that sold vines to many early Oregon grape farmers. One batch of vines he sold produced uncommonly dark, powerful Pinot Noir. Coury refused to say where he’d gotten the clone, and over the years, growers began to refer to it as Coury Clone.

For years, the assumption was the Coury Clone was a so-called “suitcase selection” that Coury had carried back from Alsace. As the only non-virused Pinot Noir clone in Colmar at the time was Clone 538, most assumed that it was the real Coury Clone. But Coury was a terrible record-keeper, and he frequently sold growers a wild mix of vines including various Pommard clones, Wadensvil, and more. So some plantings of “Coury Clone” in the early days were really mixes.

Dijon … and a Wadensvil Renaissance
When a new assortment of virus-free Pinot Noir clones arrived in Oregon from Burgundy’s Dijon Research Station in the mid-1980s, growers rushed to use them to add variety and character to their vines. And, while Pommard remained popular, the new Dijon Clones began crowding out Wadensvil Clone in vineyards both new and old.

Today, more and more growers have returned to appreciating Wadensvil’s perfume and elegance, especially when it’s grown on marine sedimentary soils as are found in Ribbon Ridge (where Patricia Green Wine Cellars’ estate vineyard sits). And now Coury clone is seeing a slight renaissance as well. The two most important plantings of Coury Clone are at Hyland Vineyard – where the current own-rooted vines were planted in 1989 – and at Freedom Hill – which used cuttings from Hyland to start its own Coury plot.

For the most part, Willamette Valley winegrowers continue to make their best wines from a mixture of clones – Pommard, Wadensvil, the Dijon clones, etc. – but occasionally a single-clonal plot is so interesting and compelling that it’s worth bottling on its own. Which is what we think you’ll find in these wines here.

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