Clone-ing Around at the Thanksgiving Table

 By Alex Fondren 

Pinot Grapes on the Vine

Pinot Grapes on the Vine

When it comes to Thanksgiving, the classic go-to wine for most Americans is Pinot Noir (and hopefully domestic!). Its typical structural elements (higher acid, milder tannins, bright cherry, cedar and earthy notes) make it a versatile wine, able to compliment the gamut of flavorful dishes that grace any holiday table. Whether you’re in the wine business or simply a well-read oenophile, the idea that Thanksgiving is synonymous with Pinot Noir is not a novel concept.

What few realize however, is that Pinot Noir has more clones than any other grape variety - nearly 100 have been registered at the University of California Davis and there are certainly many more that have yet to be discovered. Individual clones can yield wines of uniquely distinct aromas, flavors and structures, which might explain why, when winemakers work to blend varying clones of Pinot, the results can, and do, yield some of the world’s most nuanced wines.

The clones chosen for a particular wine reflect the stylistic choices made by its winemaker and vineyard manager. It’s rare to find a single-clone bottling of Pinot Noir, let alone a label that makes this clear, which might explain why most consumers are not savvy enough to ask for a particular Pinot clone, when buying wine. Increasingly however, some New World wineries are choosing to print their Pinot-blends on their back labels (a practice I doubt their French counterparts will ever choose to do).

Emeritus' "President of Fun" Mari Jones and Vineyard Manager Kirk Lokka Clone-ing Around

Emeritus' "President of Fun" Mari Jones and Vineyard Manager Kirk Lokka Clone-ing Around

Recently, I was given the opportunity to experience a ‘clonal tasting’ with our Russian River Valley client, Emeritus Vineyards, for a media event, just before their harvest went into full swing. Emeritus recently released their second 100 percent dry-farmed vintage of Pinot Noir—the 2012 Hallberg Ranch—under the direction of legendary proprietor (and father of the Sonoma Coast AVA) Brice Jones. Kirk Lokka has been Brice’s vineyard manager and right-hand man for almost 25 years, and he oversaw the dry-farming project from its inception. Lokka explained that the roots of the vines must dig “much deeper” to reach water and nutrients, and that this vigor, imparts incredibly concentrated and complex flavor characteristics to the grapes—a prime example of a California vineyard producing a distinct clonal character.

Although Emeritus’ Hallberg Ranch Vineyard is home to 11 clones spread across 2,223 vines, they only make one wine using a separately vinified clonal blend (the balance of which changes every year).

We thought an interesting exercise would be to take the clones tasted that day at Emeritus, and imagine them as wines in their own right—especially as they would pair with foods at the Thanksgiving table.

Clones & Food Pairings

Clusters of Clones

Clusters of Clones

Clone 37 “Mount Eden Clone” - This is an intense grape, with small yields, and known for its black color. It wants to grow in a downward direction, always towards the earth (no matter how it’s situated on the vine).

The Pairing: Clone 37 produces wines with a firm tannic structure that would pair best with the dark turkey meat (also because Mount Eden’s insistence to grow downward makes it a bit of a rebel). 

Clone 667: This clone produces far more “hens and chicks” (berries of different sizes and levels of maturity) per cluster, and yields a bright colored grape, with good acids. Emeritus calls this the “framework” for their signature Hallberg Ranch wine.

The Pairing: Elegant and round, this clone is known for producing a wine with classic cherry aromas that mingle with cranberry and nutmeg notes—perfect for the white meat turkey lovers at the table.   

 Clone 115: Kirk credits this grape for its fragrant profile, suggesting it provides the hallmark “nose on the Hallberg”. In contrast to clone 667, the 115 is known for imparting rose petal, red cherry, black raspberry, and sometimes leathery or anise aromas. It produces a medium- to full-bodied wine, with soft tannins. Other vintners have called 115 “chimeric,” a word from Greek mythology that suggests it is quite adaptable and works differently from site to site. It has been said that at lower crop yields, clone 115 can produce a seamless, Burgundian-style wine all on its own.

The Pairing: For its versatility and old-world rusticity, pair 115 with a classic broccoli (or any vegetable) casserole.

Clone 828: A “suitcase” clone with a murky history that can be traced to the early 1990s, when its original cutting was smuggled to America (supposedly from Domaine Romanee Conti’s ‘La Tache’). Clean and fruit-forward, 828 is known for its loose clusters and desire to grow straight up, which is why it has been unofficially called the “Viagra clone” (ahem). This clone reacts differently to varying soils—planted in sandy soils, it imparts dried herb and rose notes to a wine, while vines planted in heavier loam offer darker, richer flavors. Relatively simple on its own, 828 is a great base upon which to blend with more nuanced clones.

The Pairing: It’s all about the stuffing with 828.

Pommard Clone: Pommard boasts a dense mouthfeel wine that is similar to 828. It tends to give grapey fruit notes, along with earth, dried mushroom, cherry pie.

The Pairing: Viscous and medium in body, with soft tannins, Pommard Clone Pinot would be a perfect match for a Joel Robuchon version of mashed potatoes and gravy.

Legendary Emeritus Proprietor Brice Jones Distinguishing Each Variation

Legendary Emeritus Proprietor Brice Jones Distinguishing Each Variation

Hyde clone: Named after Larry Hyde (brother-in-law to DRC’s Aubert de Villaine), the Hyde Clone is another DRC suitcase clone from Larry Hyde's vineyard. Known for its small berries and resulting intensity, Hyde is similar to Clone 37 (made famous by Merry Edwards when she planted it upon her return from Burgundy in the 1970s).

The Pairing: Hyde will stand up to baked ham or a roasted turkey.  

Elite Clone: Another DRC suitcase clone (similar to 828) producing small berries with loose clusters that give off snappy ollaliberry and pomegranate notes. It’s rumored to be a doctored up Romanée, that once had virus issues that have since been cleaned up in a lab (hence the name, ‘Elite’).

The Pairing: Its good acid structure makes it a good match for cranberry sauce.

So when selecting your (domestic!) Pinot for Thanksgiving this year, take the extra step to research which clones go into your favorite bottles (most winery websites will have that kind of technical information available, often under the “Trade” section—if all else fails, call and ask!) I hope that this Thanksgiving you make the variety of Pinots on your table as interesting as the diversity of dishes. Cheers!

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