I distinctly recall Robert Mondavi, the iconic Napa Valley vintner, standing up at one of the early Wine Spectator Grand Tasting events in San Francisco and telling the hushed crowd of attendees that one day California would produce Pinot Noirs which could stand up to those from France.
Although he was generally regarded as the leader of a generation who did just that with the Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon grape varieties, Pinot Noir was sure to be a bigger challenge and most of the wine professionals understood that.
30 years later, the challenge still continues, even though the list of highly acclaimed Californian Pinots scoring higher than 90 points in the major wine publications keeps growing….and…at a meteoric rate.
Burgundy has had centuries to discover and validate the soils, vineyard sites and even sub clones of the Pinot grape which excelled. California, on the other hand, is just now on the threshold of settling in, especially since expanding their search beyond just climatic zones.
One of the continuing controversies over the last decade or so, has been over clones & selections of Pinot Noir.
Some winemakers, for instance, note that the increasingly popular Dijon clones were developed for Burgundy, France—its limestone soils & cool climate, which is VERY different than what California or Oregon can provide. There are at least as many on the other side who favor these clones (which the media’s high scores also validate) and insist with more time & therefore older vines, these clones will better show what they are truly capable of.
One of the lesser known and greatly under appreciated grape selections I would really look at if I were planting my own vineyard, is referred to as the Martini clone. It normally doesn’t result in flashy, showy, charismatic wines, BUT I have had so many memorable bottlings over the years produced from this selection.
I have asked several of our Pinot Noir winemaking friends out of California, their thoughts on the Martini clone, (especially from the Santa Maria Valley & the Anderson Valley, where it seems to do quite well).
James Hall, Patz & Hall
Martini clone (s) Pinot Noir is a selection taken by UC Davis from Martini’s Carneros vineyard and then isolated and heat treated for virus removal. Generally, it is now thought of as a production clone, prone to high yields and relatively low extract wines. It is not planted much since theDijonclones have become available. That said, in certain sites, particularly older plantings, the clone can make elegant complex wines worthy of aging. The original planting of Martini clone is located at a vineyard now owned by Andy Beckstoffer south of Las Amigas Rd. near Acacia.
James Ontiveros, Alta Maria/ Native 9 (Santa MariaValley)
Martini clone is uniquely all it’s own. It is the other end of the spectrum from the Dijon Clones, in my Santa Maria experience. When Dijon clones are being discussed they’re grouped as components, parts of a whole. 113, (structure)114, (aromatics) and 115 red fruit and most commonly the one that “can be a stand alone clone.”
667, and 777 more often than not discussed as a sequential pair. 667, dark and brooding, two 667 selections are out there one fairly productive, the other with a one ton per acre/ glass ceiling, due to tiny infrequent berries.
Martini, a much longer established selection is slower to ripen, maintains lower pH and higher acidity, and has the durability to withstand a heat spikes contrasted to her Dijo ncousins. I think one of the easily noticeable attributes is Martini has a longer, more gangly inflorescence, and often heavily affected with millerandage.
Gary Burk, Costa de Oro (Santa MariaValley)
The Martini clone has a checkered past in our area. It was mostly planted during the early days of Santa Barbara viticulture (70s & 80s) when techniques such as vertical shoot positioning, leaf pulling, green thinning, etc were not necessarily standard practices. TheSanta MariaValley developed a reputation for good pinots but also for an herbal, tomato characteristic that was not seen as a positive. Martini also struggles to fully ripen its stems (lignification) and if fermented whole cluster, this can add to its pronounced spice/green characters. When theDijonclones came to our area in the mid 90’s, nearly all newly planted vineyards used these clones because of their perceived advantages over the older, traditiona lCalifornia clones. Earlier ripening, bigger fruit, front loaded wines that grabbed critic’s attention. In fact, Matt Kramer visited us around 2002 and told me that if Santa Maria doesn’t rip out all its vineyards and replant with Dijon clones, than every other area will pass it by (even though at the time there was more Dijon planted at Bien Nacido Vineyard & Le Bon Climat than all of Santa Rita Hills).
More recently, the traditional clones have made a bit of a comeback. Better farming has eliminated a lot of the negative green characters in the grape it regardless of clone. Consumer tastes are moving past the syrah-like styles of pinots that were getting all the attention a decade ago. Our Martini clone is a more feminine style that, at its best, has exotic aromatics blending strawberry fruit, Asian spices, and savory/earthy/herbal notes. The key to Martini clone is getting this complex nose that draws you in rather than a monochromatic, fruit-oriented note over and over again. Texturally, Martini clone is lower in tannin than most clones and we try to play to this strength by creating a silky texture from aging the wine in French oak barrels and very little manipulation of the wine (very little pumping or rackings). Martini clone tends not to “blow people away” with its power but when at its best it creates a subtle wine with layered complexity and silky texture that unfolds over time.
Van Williamson (AndersonValley)
Martini selection in AndersonValley has always been one of the best fits for our area. Most people consider Maritni selection to be some type of Pommard Clone, but it definitely is different from what we see in Pommard clones. It does have the big clusters but I think it tends to have more smaller sized berries than Pommard. I think as far as wine is concerned the Martini clone tends to have a better invisible structure than other clones. Dijon clones are smaller clusters and tend to have more lushness in the fruit. What I like best about the Martini is how it showcases minerality than other clones in our area. I think it would have to be on the top of favorite clones in AndersonValley. It has a long history of doing well in our area. Although I do like the Dijon clones, 2A, and Pommard, I would take Martini if it was available at the site instead. Is it what the masses like best? I don’t think so but I like wines that have structure for aging and Martini clone tends to lead the pack in regards to structure.
Anthony Filiberti, Anthill Farms/ Knez (AndersonValley)
Well physically the clusters are smaller and denser than the Dijon clones. The berries are very low in juice and thicker skinned and very few whole clusters break down at all in the fermenters, whereas much of the Dijon, particularly 777 and 667 berries break down quickly. The wine has been deeper and more brooding, much less about the exotic fruit of Dijon and more earth and soil with a deep black fruit character. Weightier in the mouth and more powerfully structured, which lends itself to using more whole cluster to balance the weight and accentuate the aromatics and focus. Overall the Martini is closer to David Bruce, though less monolithic and tannic, and the Pommard, than it is to any of the Dijon clones from Cerise Vineyard. To me the Martini is a good choice for a stand alone selection as a wine.
Fred Scherrer, Scherrer
I worked with Martini clone first while at Dehlinger. It was mixed into a planting with Pommard. It ripened later so we started flagging and picking them later…keeping it separate. Berries were harder at ripeness. We got more of a carbonic sort of character due to this. Lighter color and some nice texture…and harder tannin. Did not fit well with Pommard & Swan on site.
My other experience with it was with Lingenfelder vineyard, in the Russian River Valley., where the soils is Huichica soil rather than gold ridge. Again, hard berries and later ripening. Thick skins boded well because the site being further inland, where it frequently saw higher heat spikes at harvest. Lighter color and harder tannin. Different balance.
I think it’s less of a good fit in these parts of Russian River Valley than some other areas like Anderson Valley, where it enjoys a good reputation.