No one is going to dispute that modern viticulture developments have led to vast improvements in wine. Whether it how a vine’s canopy is managed or how the soil is treated, breakthroughs in farming generally have provided more consistent, drought- and insect-resistant vines. The result has led to better wines across the board.
One significant breakthrough came in the 1950s when researchers identified clones that could be counted on to grow consistent, disease-free vines. A clone is a cutting or bud of a mother plant and is genetically identical. So, a cutting from an immensely successful vineyard planted in similar soil and climate can be expected to perform equally well. Wine growers, then, would select a particular clone for its flavor profile, grape size, yield, or tolerance to weather challenges. Prior to that, vines of various cuttings were indiscriminately planted side by side.
Clonal selection has been most popular with pinot noir. Mono clones, such as Dijon 777, Dijon 113 and Pommard, customarily planted separately in blocks across California and Oregon, have created some extraordinary wines over the last few decades. But the sameness of these cloned grapes has caused many winemakers to wonder if the wines lack the dimension that a random selection would better provide. Maybe, they wondered, earlier generations of grape growers had it right: randomness is good.
One person who has embraced the old practice of random clonal plantings is Luisa Ponzi, a second-generation winemaker in Oregon’s pinot-noir-rich Willamette Valley. In 1975, her father Dick Ponzi, and fellow winemaker Dick Erath worked with Oregon State University to plant 22 pinot noir clones on a two-acre plot. Both men were winemaking pioneers in the region, so the trial was a learning experience. The idea was simply to tag the vines and observe their development over several years. But it was a blend of these clones from this Abetina Vineyard that created some very interesting wines, Luisa recalls.
When Luisa returned from her studies in Burgundy in 1993 to become Ponzi's winemaker, she had the opportunity to take the magic she found at Abetina a step further. Over the next two decades, she became more familiar with the expression of individual clones, what rootstocks work best in her soils, and how vine age was affecting the wines. She developed a planting technique she calls "clonal massale," in which a mix of more than 25 unique clones are planted randomly in a single block. Today, more than 30 acres of Ponzi wines are planted to clonal massale.
The risk of such an undertaking is that the vines don’t behave the same -- they ripen at different times and with different levels of acidity, flavor, aromas, and more. However, Luisa says the grapes complement each other and compensate for vintage variation. The tradeoff is a pinot noir with more dimension and character than those made from selected clones. The clonal massale pinot noirs we tasted during a recent visit to Ponzi Vineyards showed dimension that comes from her innovation.
The 2014 Ponzi Vineyards Avellana Pinot Noir is from a block of clonal massale planted to heritage and Dijon clones. The Abetina pinot noir comes from the experimental 1975 Abetina Vineyard of heritage clones and the Ponzi Abetina 2 pinot noir uses fruit from a block that is identical to the original Abetina. The block is preserved on rootstock on the same soil and elevation as the original block.
Dick and Nancy Ponzi planted their first vineyard in 1970 and their daughters – Luisa and Anna – have been carrying on ground-breaking innovation. All but the origin estate vineyard are planted within five miles of each other in the Chehalem Mountains AVA. The area is under review for its own AVA to be named after its soil, Laurelwood.
One common theme that seems to run through the wines is balance. While some Oregon pinot noirs are thick and jammy, Ponzi wines are elegantly classic with mid-palate depth rather than forward fruit. This was particularly evident in the 2014 Ponzi Classico Pinot Noir ($43) and delivers well beyond its price.
Here are our tastings notes of more of Ponzi’s incredible wines:
Ponzi Vineyards Avellana Pinot Noir 2014 ($105). Only a couple of hundred cases are made of this exquisite, pretty pinot noir. More tannic than most pinot noirs, it is destined for greatness with concentrated black cherry and plum flavors and spicy aromas.
Ponzi Vineyards Abetina Pinot Noir 2014 ($105). Generous nutmeg and cinnamon aromas, black cherry flavors, fine tannins, and a long finish make this a collectible wine for those with deep pockets. This is truly one of the extraordinary wines made in the Willamette Valley.
Ponzi Vineyard Tavola Pinot Noir 2015 ($27). Using grapes from several appellations, this affordable, popular pinot noir delivers big-time flavors of red cherries, blueberries and a dash of chocolate. Blended for early release, it has a more fruit-forward style and has become almost too popular to satisfy the demand, Luisa says.
Ponzi Vineyard Pinot Noir Reserve 2014 ($65). Grapes from Ponzi’s Aurora and Avellana vineyards are joined by other sources to create a complex, rich pinot noir that we liked very much. Long finish.
Ponzi Vineyards Pinot Gris 2016 ($19). Oregon is known for its pinot gris, but Ponzi has been making it since 1978. Trust us, this a wine you need to discover. Highly aromatic, it’s melon and stone fruit flavors presented with a touch of sweetness make for a great sipper or a wine to pair with barbecued chicken and fish. Ponzi also makes an old-vine pinot gris do die for, but available only through its club.
Ponzi Vineyards Reserve Chardonnay 2014 ($40). Reasonably priced for a full-bodied chardonnay, this cuvee has a silky texture, balanced acidity, and oodles of tropical fruit and lemon meringue flavors with a hint of mineral.