Exploring the Depths of the Pinot Gene Pool

By | 23 February 2024


Anne Krebiehl MW

As part of our week-long focus on viticulture, we return to a vintage piece by Anne Krebiehl MW, first published in WFW67 (March 2020), which explores some of the exciting developments in research into Pinot Noir clones in Burgundy and Champagne.

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Looks can be deceiving—especially when it comes to Pinot Noir genetics. Straggly bunches often bring forth superior fruit; the scrawniest, most millerandé are prized for their complexity of flavor, favorable pulp:skin ratio, and tannin structure. Their variable and ultra-low yield, however, is not something every grower relishes. Only a handful of growers will plant such a selection, known as Burgundian très fin, and then only in vineyards where these attributes make sense. Many, especially outside Burgundy, prefer the relative predictability and stability of a mono-clonal planting, as the worldwide success of certain clones shows. A previous report (“Cracking the Clonal Code,” WFW 55, pp.112–19) traced their genesis. Developed after the pan-European catastrophe that was phylloxera, clonal selection initially focused on yield stability. Later, parameters like color, ripening, and disease resistance gained importance, and finally organoleptic properties and wine structure were also taken into account, as was sanitation and the propagation of virus-free material. Now, however, climate change has put a whole new spin on the selection game; early ripening is no longer the positive trait it once was, while previously frowned-upon high-acid genes now hold fresh possibility. Yet even before this became as crucially apparent as it is now, clonal selection had evolved.

The popularity of mono-clonal plantings and more acute ecological awareness have shifted clonal selection to new and evolving objectives. Today, selection is all about the preservation of a biodiverse and disease-free genetic pool that evolved in a particular region, with its own climate and soil, representing authentic, locally true genetics. This is where the game is at—at least in Burgundy and, more recently, also in Champagne. This line of enquiry usually leads straight to the practice of massal selection, but what happens most often today blends the practices of clonal and massal selection, going a long way toward eliminating their respective weaknesses: the loss of diversity and resilience in mono-clonal plantings, and the sanitary and evolutionary lottery of massal selection. What matters most is local adaptation and authenticity, diverse but high-quality traits—and the ability to choose certain selections for certain purposes.

In the region of Burgundy, there are two established groups focusing on vine variety selections: one being a public organization, the other, a private establishment. The Association Technique Viticole de Bourgogne (ATVB) is the public body affiliated with the agricultural chamber of Côte d’Or and was formed in the 1980s primarily to maintain the genetic diversity of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Aligoté in Burgundy. The private selections are executed by an institution founded in 2008 called the Association de la Sauvegarde de la Diversité des Cépages de Bourgogne, popularly called La Fondation within local circles. Christophe Deola, director at Domaine Louis Latour who is accustomed with both institutions, claims that both bodies pretty much do the same job. However, ATVB does it on a broader scale. Throughout two decades, ATVB has managed to search more than 200 old vine parcels to find different Pinots and Chardonnays. Conversely, the Fondation has around 50 members, domains that primarily own grands crus and great premiers crus in Côte d’Or. The Fondation declined an interview due to the sensitivity and privacy of their work.

The ATVB is open to revealing and explaining its process. The group has divided their selections into four categories: supérieur (shortened to sup), fin, fin plus, and très fin which are obtainable through nurseries. The ATVB organization also maintains that its selection method that sits in between clonal and massal prevents standardization of grape varieties and eventual reduction of biodiversity.

An advisor at the ATVB named Laurent Anginot is responsible for these selections. He searches old vineyards, monitors the nursery vineyards and supervises its microvinifications. Records of the selected individual clones are maintained and thus, a profile is established. Depending on the particular characteristics, an individual might fit into the sup, fin, fin plus, or très fin selection. This results in the elimination of unpredictability of the massal method while preserving diversity.

The ATVB has a yearly practice of comparing microvinifications of their various selections against a control sample composed of equal parts of clone 777 and clone 115 that scored under ten different criteria. Controlled components of the assessment consist of color intensity, olfactory intensity, olfactory faults, olfactory quality, acidity, tannin quality, roundness/body, persistence, gustatory faults, and gustative quality. There is also a statistical analysis based on olfactory and gustative descriptors.

The ATVB occupies 15 hectares for nursery vineyards. Also, in Beaune, it has an archive greenhouse hosting 1,200 potential Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Aligoté, and Pinot Gris vines collected across Burgundy. Anginot refers to his valuable collection as the ’safe‘, as they are safeguarded from weather and diseases in the greenhouse.

Each year, Anginot takes us through a 2-hectare plot of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir planted in 1999 in the Hautes-Côtes de Beaune appellation in the serene town of Bouze-lès-Beaune to illustrate the difference between the most cultivated Côte d’Or clones: clone 115 and 777, and the ATVB selections. This serves to show in graphic terms the unique characteristics of the various clones and their suitability for different vineyards, contributing to biodiversity and variety in wine. It also serves to reinforce the point that each clone offers different potential yields and quality—key considerations for vineyard owners and wine producers alike.

Anginot discloses that the cuttings ATVB purveys annually are nearly a fourth Chardonnay and a fourth Pinot Noir single clones, while the remaining half are ATVB Pinot selections divided into roughly 35 percent supérieur, 5 percent très fin, and 60 percent fin. “Pinot fin sits at the core of the market,” says Anginot. He views it as a ceaseless labor of rejuvenation, aligned with superior quality and adapting climate. Anginot believes he has at least four distinguishable lignes or clones, that are different enough from existent varieties to pass ENTAV/INRA standards for a novel clone, but decides to include them in his selections to enrich and renew the combination.

Anginot reveals that the ATVB maintains another large conservatoire in Dijon, where six specimens of each plant are preserved—solely to conserve the diversity that could support Burgundy as the climate persistently changes. The type of qualities required in a decade or a fifteenth year does inform his current scouting. Deola adds, “The plan is preservation.”

In the remote Franche-Comté, Pierre-Marie Guillaume of Pépinières Guillaume—one of the leading nurseries in France, founded in 1895—concurs. He kicked off his career in 1982.

Further north, another visionary, Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon, chef de cave at Champagne Louis Roederer, started his selections in 2000. He launched a significant program for revisiting pre-clonal vines and selecting more notable specimens over five years. The story of Champagne was initially a still wine which later morphed to a sparkling variant.

“We devoted daughter parcels to 160 of the top individuals, referencing the results from the past five years, to confirm the quality of the choice in a daughter vineyard,” elaborates Lécaillon. “When these young vines hit five years old, in 2010, we initiated another selection of the top performers, conducted the ELISA virus screenings, and then relocated the clean selections to the village of Bouleuse.” Bouleuse, situated west-southwest of Reims, is part of the Champagne appellation but relatively cool. Existing within its 13ha (32 acres) of vineyards, 11ha (27 acres) are owned by Louis Roederer and have been designated as Lécaillon’s experimental vineyard. Every one of the ultimate 13–14 unique individuals owns a line on the gentle incline, and the differences between them are evident. “We ascertained that the difference between the earliest and latest ripening periods of the collection can amount to 18 days. This could be integral to the future,” he asserts. However, he cautions, “In the 1970s, the same mistake was repeated globally: people selected the ‘best’ clones. We cannot complete this process once and assert that it is finished, because with time you begin to lose elements. Reselecting requires annual attention, visiting vineyards, choosing individuals. It’s a constant process. By maintaining this as an ongoing practice, you are continuously renewing your diversity and this provides security. We must avoid repeating the same mistakes. It may be tempting to claim that the climate is warming, so I will choose the late-ripening individuals. But this is misguided—I need to preserve my pool, my mixture of individuals, functioning in tandem.” Separating this from the cost, which Lécaillon avoids mentioning, he notes, “After 20 years, we are still engaged in the process. In three to five years, I will have the capacity to conduct microvinifications [of the Bouleuse vines], incorporating wine descriptions to complement the summaries of the leaves, the fruit, and the ripening trends. From the commencement of this project to the time when I can truly utilise what I have established will require a total of 25 years — it is a long-term project.” Nevertheless, some of the Bouleuse selections have already been used in replanting segments of the dedicated brut nature vineyard in Cumières and the Cristal rosé vineyards in Aÿ. And in this, Lécaillon makes it apparent that this locally evolved, adapted, and chosen material reaches beyond the concept of biodiversity. It transforms into Lécaillon’s fundamental philosophy: “I refer to it as the Cristal DNA. My desire is for Cristal to represent not only a selection of the top locations, overwhelmingly so because we possess the land, cultivated organically and biodynamically. I want this to emerge from the best genetic material. It is a key part of the narrative. Then I will possess all the facets of the terroir: I will utilise best practices, superior soil and positioning, and the genetic material that has adapted and has historical ties to the estate. This will exude a very powerful identity.”

No one among the collective at Burgundy’s Fondation could have improved upon this explanation, had they been inclined to engage in the discussion. The study being conducted by the Fondation, the ATVB, and Lécaillon revolves around authenticity and typicity. Lécaillon states that an association with identical aims as La Fondation has now been established in Champagne, receiving support from the CIVC. These investments of money and time, both considerable, are praiseworthy. My belief is that they likely contain at least some of the solutions for climate change, a problem which is too often defined in debates about new varieties or crossings. However, what if nature itself has already assembled the optimal gene pool? The key lies in observation, humility, and conservation.

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