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Linda Murphy October 2010 column

One would think that 40-plus years of successful, modern wine production would give us Yanks enough confidence to halt our reliance on the use of château, domaine, clos, côte, beau and belle on their labels, and rely on English.

The target market is, after all, the US, and its inhabitants largely speak English and Spanish.

Those who began using French terminology in the early years of US winemaking – including Chateau Montelena, Chateau Ste Michelle, Clos du Bois, Clos du Val and Domaine Chandon – are forgiven. They were either founded by French companies or began their lives so long ago that it was important for them to be seen to be striving to make wines as good as Bordeaux and Burgundy. It’s no wonder that E&J Gallo’s Hearty Burgundy, a jug-wine blend of red grapes, was a huge seller in the 1970s and 1980s: it sounded French and tasted Californian.

Today, few West Coast wineries use the crutch of France to support and advertise their seriousness in producing wine. Yet so many new vintners in emerging US winemaking regions, still unsure of themselves, revert to le français as a seal of approval in their labelling and brand messaging. Imitation may be a form of flattery, yet for US wine, it’s time the industry stopped stealing from France (and Italy, Spain, and so on) and started using its own language to communicate with consumers who don’t understand ancien, saignée and tirage.

This brings me to another bugbear: the Dijon clones of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Burgundy, and the rate at which they have been planted in California and Oregon over the past decade. Marketing materials, wine labels and vintner conversations are peppered with a spitfire of numbers: ‘We’ve just replanted our Pinot Noir to Dijon clones 115, 667 and 777,’ or, ‘Our new Chardonnay vineyard has all the Dijon clones: 75, 76, 95, 96, 98 and 277.’ Good for you; now tell me how good the wines are because of them.

The planting of vine selections from Burgundy is all well and good, but Dijon clones are not for every West Coast plot. Their success depends on climate, soils, exposure, trellising, moisture control and so much more. Just because a grower plants a Dijon clone in his vineyard, there is no guarantee of success.

Dijon clones are engineered to ripen early, before autumn rains arrive in Burgundy. In Oregon’s Willamette Valley, the state’s centre of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay production, vintners face similar conditions, and Burgundian clones allow them to achieve mature grape flavours rapidly, yet at an even pace with sugar development.

In California, it’s a whole different ball game. In its coolest viticultural areas – the Sonoma Coast, Russian River Valley, Anderson Valley (Mendocino County) and Santa Rita Hills (Santa Barbara County – Dijon clones deliver great results, as they are ideal in cool conditions. Yet in the warmer areas of the state, they develop their sugars too rapidly, with a risk of high alcohol before complexity has developed.

In many regions in the West, the traditional clones (Wente, Martini, Martin Ray and Rued for Chardonnay; Pommard, Wadenswil, and Swan for Pinot Noir) are better suited to the local climates, soils and exposures than the Dijons. Older plantings of the traditional clones can express depth, concentration and character in the wines that are not possible from newer Dijon clones.

In my experience, West Coast Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays produced from mixes of clonal selections are the most successful and the most complex. They also provide insurance of a successful vintage, in that some clones have good years, and others not so good.

Too many US producers use Dijon clones as a sales/marketing gimmick, to convince trade and consumers that their wines are high quality simply because they are produced from such clones. The taste test will reveal the truth.

Yet the smart winemakers will explain why this clone works and that one doesn’t for the terroirs in which they are planted. They will promote the Pommard clone over clone 777, if the former makes a better wine than the latter. They will tell you, as I believe, that multi-clone blends produce the finest, most complex, most layered wines, and that the trick is in the blending.

It’s time US producers trusted their instincts and achievements rather than their attachments to all things French. Borrow where you can, but create on your own with the terroirs you’re given, and produce wines to which American consumers will gravitate. Just don’t force them to pull out a dictionary to understand your labels.

Written by Linda Murphy

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