Growing Pinot Noir in the Puget Sound AVA

Dijon Pinot Noir Clones
Dijon Pinot Noir Clones

I have written a lot about grapes that will grow successfully  in the Puget Sound AVA over the years. It dawned on me that I have never written an entry about Pinot Noir in general for the Puget Sound AVA. Pinot Noir is a very complex grape with a long complex history. Pinot is picky about where it can grow in the world, it can’t be too hot or too cool, it can’t be too wet or too dry. It does prefer cooler weather like what we have here in the Pacific Northwest. The Puget Sound AVA is one of those areas. I have proven on several occasions that Pinot Noirs grown in this region can produce world class wines. My 2009 Estate Grown Pinot Noir was rated 90 points in Wine Enthusiast. Other wineries have also produced excellent results over the years and I am sure many more vintages in the future will produce excellent Pinot Noirs.

Let’s start off saying that of all the grapes I have grown over the years (probably 30 different varietals) Pinot Noir remains one of the most challenging grapes to grow in the vineyard. (I haven’t found it any easier or harder to make wine from the grape, you just need a subtle hand in the winery) It is prone to powdery mildew and does not like to grow straight up and down. It gives a much smaller crop than many other grapes. It is prone to rotting at the first sign of rain. But when it all comes together, the wines are ethereal! BTW, I do not recommend growing pinot noir in your backyard unless you are glutton for punishment. It is a very high maintenance grape requiring multiple sprays a growing season. Also, you must be in one of the warmer locations to ripening Pinot Noir (except maybe the Precoce clone) so take that into consideration when planting. All these clones need at least 1800 growing degree days to ripen.

So, what are the choices we have in front us as growers here in the far pacific northwest? There are many and I will outline what our choices are and what you should be looking at to plant.

Let’s start with the first clones to make their way into Oregon and Western Washington state. It all started in the late 1960’s with a couple of adventurous growers in the Willamette valley. They had limited material to work from, but the two main clones they had were Wadenswil and Pommard.

Pommard – (Aka UCD 4 or 5) Was one of the first officially named clones in North America. Pinot had been grown in California for a long time but UC Davis made this one of their first official selections back in the 1950s. Pommard is considered an all around good choice in that it’s flavors are not one dimensional like many of the Dijon clones can sometimes be. It was the clone that Gerard Bentryn brought in in the 1980s and planted on Bainbridge Island. I grew it on Maury Island. It does well here in the Puget Sound. It tends to ripen a little later than the Dijon clones with less intense colors. It has small compact clusters and is no more or less susceptible to the various maladies that Pinot always seems to get around here. Still a decent choice, especially if you have a lot of land and want to blend clones.

Wadenswil  – (aka UCD 1A or 2A) Another one of the old clones to come out of UC Davis in the 1950s. This was originally from Switzerland and was selected for it high quality and early ripening. Unfortunately for us, it seems to ripen a little too late and the quality for us in the Puget Sound is not that great. When Gary Moulton was running the grape trials at WSU Mt. Vernon back in the 1998-2006 time period, he did rootstock testing with Wadenswil. I think because that’s all he could get from the in-state nurseries at that time. There might be some planted out there in the Puget Sound AVA, but nobody I know is planting or growing it now. But Gary did get it to ripen in the heat challenged vineyards at Mt. Vernon. I would choose one of the Dijon clones over this one.

Then came the Dijon invasion in the 1990s. A group of growers in Oregon paid money to import the latest and greatest clones of Pinot Noir from France into Oregon and these became known as the Dijon clones because of the research institute they were imported from. There are many “Dijon” clones but only a few are available to use and useful to use and they are:

Clone 115 – There were a couple of waves Dijon clones of Pinot Noir. The first to arrive were the 113, 114 and 115 clones. 113 and 114 are available to import into WA state, but the star of these three clones is the 115 clone. I have never grown it personally because I got caught up in the 2nd wave of Dijon clones when it came time to plant my vineyard. I have always wanted to put in a row of this and might some day. As with all the Dijon clones, they are earlier ripening, in a normal year the 1st or 2nd week of October. Have similar characteristics to all these dijon clones which is small clusters, weak growth, small crop, darker and more dense colors and more balanced aromatics than the so called older clones. You really can’t go wrong with this clone here in the Puget Sound.

Clone 667 – When I went to plant my vineyard, I was able to pick from the latest and greatest Dijon clones in 2005 so I went with 667 and 777 thinking I could get the earliest and best crop possible. I still think I made a pretty good choice with the clones, but not the rootstock selections. I put 667 on 101-14 and then 777 on 3309. I think I made a mistake with 101-14. I thought it would reduce vigor and enhance ripening. It might do the later, but my vines are huge! But, I have to say that my 667 does ripen almost every year regardless of how much of a jungle it is out there. Very small clusters, the size of a fist and I don’t get a lot of fruit. But my wine in 2009 was about 75% 667 and 25% 777 because my 777 vines were still a little immature. It made a heck of a wine. It is very susceptible to botrytis. Color not as deep as 777. I highly recommend growing it.

Clone 777 – My second planting at my vineyard was clone 777 on 3309 rootstock and I have say I think this is a better combination than the one above. The vigor seems much reduced and the clusters seem slightly larger. It seems to ripen a few days after  667 but seems to have more intense color and flavors. This is my favorite clone that I have personally grown and I highly recommend it for the Puget Sound AVA. I actually get about double the yield on my 777 over 667 but it might be a combination of rootstock and location.

There there is one more that we need to discuss which I have not personally grown, but I am planting it this year and that is:

Pinot Noir Precoce (aka Fruhburgunder) – Sometime in the early 2000s, Gary Moulton was trying to tell everyone about this new clone of Pinot Noir that he got from Canada that supposedly ripened 2 weeks earlier than anything else out there. Unfortunately, the die had been cast at my vineyard by the time this clone hit the market. There is some controversy about this clone. Is it a clone of Pinot Noir? or a cross between two vines of Pinot Noir? Some say genetic analysis show it’s not Pinot Noir but as of now I’m going with the theory that it’s a mutation similar to Pinot Meunier and Pinot Gris.

What we have is a red grape, that tastes exactly like Pinot Noir that ripens a full two weeks earlier than the very early Dijon clones. Fruhburgunder vines originally came from northern Germany. In Germany, there are 5 clones that growers can choose from. Legends vary, but clearly these vines came from France at some point, but the thinking is that sometime in the middle ages the vines found their way to Germany and have found a home along the Ahr river. There are very few places where this grape would ripen in the world and the Puget Sound AVA is one. It is almost too early for Oregon growers because it is a bit warmer down there. This clone could mean we get a red grape harvest every year. The downside I hear from growers is that this grape is has very low yields. I have heard one person tell me the wine is crap but I’ve had a few Fruhburgunders from Germany and they are decent enough. I can’t tell if it’s the German winemaking style or the grapes. I have had a couple of examples from the Puget Sound and they are good, good enough to keep trying this grape. This grape could be relegated to blending with other Pinot to boost sugar and drop acids. Supposedly it drops acids super fast and the color is not dark at all, but then I have tasted an example that was super dark. Nobody is making large enought quantities that we can say with certainty that this grape is good or whatever.

Having said that I plan on putting in a row next year to do my own trials. It will be on it’s own roots since we don’t have phyloxera and it doesn’t need help in ripening. I recommend it with caution for now until we have more information on flavors.

There are literally hundreds of Pinot Clones available for you to try. Not all have been planted here in the Puget Sound yet at least not on any large scale. As I mentioned, Dijon Clone 113 and 114 would probably do well here, but the general consensus in Oregon and elsewhere is that 115 is the best clone of the three. There two other significant Dijon clones, 828 and 943. Both being Dijon clones are expected to ripen around the same time as the other Dijon clones. There are supposedly problems with both though. Clone 828 was a “suitcase” clone at one time, which means someone illegally brought it into this country and it wasn’t certified and made virus free. You can read the whole story here: I would be cautious of where you get your vines labelled 828. Clone 943 is really too new for any long track record of success in this country. It does have the unique feature of having super small clusters and almost seedless grapes. It seems like a niche clone for now. I would stick with the tried and true.

A side benefit of growing pinot noir, especially in the Puget Sound climate, is that we can make excellent sparkling wine out of the grapes too. There are dozens of clones of pinot dedicated to the sparkling wine industry, but if you want a dual purpose grape, I would stick with the above mentioned clones as they can make excellent sparkling wine (Blancs de Noir) on their own.

As for growing conditions, you need the warmest location you can find. You should have over 1800 growing degree days on a consistent basis from year to year. You should have sunny, full sun all day long at your location. Typically, they should be planted on a hillside. Using rootstock and be advantageous. But growing grapes on their own roots is still a viable option here in the Puget Sound AVA due to the lack of phylloxera and the fact that there are so few vineyards that it is unlikely to spread. Don’t expect to get a big powerhouse wine out of these grapes. Most years you will be lucky to get the grapes to 21-22 brix range, but that’s OK because the acid levels tend to be pretty low for us at those sugar levels. I have made perfectly drinkable wine out of 18 brix pinot. I originally thought that I would try the super dense spacing they do in Burgundy, but my 3′ spacing is too close, even with rootstocked vines. I suggest 4′ apart or more. I also have my vines trained at 18″ off the ground and that is simply too low and back breaking. I suggest 24″ or higher, maybe 30″. You need to be vigorous about detail in the vineyard with Pinot Noir. That means constant attention. Shoot positioning, hedging, leaf pulling, spraying. It rots easily, grows sideways and is a general pain in the you know what compared to other grapes like Cabernet or Riesling.

In conclusion, I would stick with the 6 clones mentioned above. They should give you plenty to choose from. In a large scale operation, I would use several clones to blend. In a backyard grow operation, you could choose all the same or mix several clones. Make sure you buy them from a certified nursery like Cloud Mountain Farms.

Pinot Noir is one of the most challenging grapes to grow period. No matter where you are in the world, so taking this on is a big challenge and for backyard growers, especially so.

2014 is going to be a El Nino year?

El NinoI started seeing some news on the mainstream press that we might be heading into an El Nino year, which has me dancing a little jig! We have all heard the term El Nino/La Nina, but what does it mean to me here in the Pacific Northwest?

As you can see from this image on the left, when the El Nino is in command the jet stream and storm track heads straight into California (which will be a good thing for them and their drought) leaving us alone here the in the PNW and generally giving us warm and sunny conditions. Which is always a good thing for the grapes here. The timing and strength of this El Nino are still being debated and the computers are chugging away trying to figure it out, but the general consensus is that we will start to feel the effects of El Nino some time this summer and generally they last for several months to a year or so. The early predictions are calling for a fairly strong El Nino, maybe not like we have seen since 1998. I first started growing grapes in 1998 and I remember how hot it was that summer. The vintage down in Oregon was big and the grapes got really ripe and it was dry all the way through harvest. We experienced something similar in 2012, but nearly as strong as 1998. These vintages are for the red grapes, Pinot Noir, Regent mainly. If I were a betting man, I would be planting a lot of tomatoes in the garden this year. Here is to hoping that we get a hot/dry summer here in the Seattle area!