WootBot


quality posts: 14 Private Messages WootBot

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You all remember Stillman Brown from his epic contributions to the forum discussions when we offered a three-pack from his Red Zeppelin Winery back in April. So we couldn't be more thrilled to have him as the latest Wine.Woot guest blogger. Take it away, Stillman!

Do low yielding vineyards necessarily produce better wine grapes?

Measuring by tons per acre, hectoliters per hectare, or as I prefer to put it, "bottles per vine" (because the first two commonly used measurements don't account for vine density, and because it's simpler and better) doesn't provide an easy assessment of fruit concentration or wine quality, though it is an important factor in most cases. Assuming that the vine is in balance, with the right number of leaves per cluster, optimum canopy and vine orientation for the varietal and area, there are still other complexities. Lower yields from smaller berries that have a higher skin to juice ratio (because of the cube/square law) will be more highly flavored since it is the layer just under the skin that provides almost all of the biochemicals from which aromas and flavors come.

Let's take two examples to show how complex this can be; on a very cool coastal hillside with poor soils, a vine won't be able to ripen more than one or two bottles worth of grapes per vine, so the yields must be kept very low; by thinning, for example. If the vine is an excellent clone of Pinot Noir or Syrah, you may achieve spectacular results. If it's Sauvignon Blanc or Cabernet Sauvignon, the resulting wine may be concentrated but overly weedy and herbal. Now let's consider a much warmer area, perhaps with richer soil. At very low yields, the vine's much larger photosynthetic resources will enable it to ripen the grapes too rapidly, resulting in high sugars but incomplete, simple flavors; though Pinot Noir doesn't belong in the area at all, the other three varietals would benefit from having extra weeks of 'hang time' for the fruit to mature, as the vine has to divide its energies among a score of grape clusters instead of a few.

All of this assumes that the winemaking process has been adapted to the fruit's chemistry and flavors . . . do you see how complex this can be? I have grafted over or planted some fairly extreme vineyard sites over the years, and I always seek to control yields, but it's only part of the artistic and scientific process that goes into making outstanding wine. And here I haven't said anything about wine personality; perhaps my next post . . .

Stillman is also extending an invitation to all Wooters to attend his annual fund raiser and party this August 11-15 in Cayucos, CA. The party benefits the Cal Poly Wine and Viniculture scholarship, and features the musical stylings of both Dread Zeppelin and Meth Leppard. Take a look at at the invitation so you fully understand what you're getting yourself into.

 

otolith


quality posts: 22 Private Messages otolith

Thanks for the article. Sometimes I wished I lived in Wine Country so I could go to all these awesome events.

Is there ever a time where the vines have optimal conditions and their yields are attempted to be maximized? Say, old vines that just don't produce a lot of grapes? How do those vines differ in the fruit produced vs young, vigorous vines where the yield is kept low?

I would also be curious about your thoughts on Bordeaux, where, IIRC, there are limits placed on how many tons of grapes per acre/hectare that can be harvested and some of the rationale behind this.

"When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe."
--John Muir

winesmith


quality posts: 49 Private Messages winesmith

Good points, Stillman. More often than not, restricting yield in non-limiting areas results in poorer wine by unbalancing the vine. The fact that the richest wines are often low yielding, being from sites that devigorate, doesn't mean that reducing yields increases concentration; such a manipulation often does just the opposite: makes berries enlarge and encourages shading, resulting in veggie flavors. The tail doesn't wag the dog.

Good to hear your succinct but perceptive thoughts.

Clark

stillmanbrown


quality posts: 141 Private Messages stillmanbrown

Thanks for the article. Sometimes I wished I lived in Wine Country so I could go to all these awesome events.

Is there ever a time where the vines have optimal conditions and their yields are attempted to be maximized? Say, old vines that just don't produce a lot of grapes? How do those vines differ in the fruit produced vs young, vigorous vines where the yield is kept low?

I would also be curious about your thoughts on Bordeaux, where, IIRC, there are limits placed on how many tons of grapes per acre/hectare that can be harvested and some of the rationale behind this.[/quote]

Certainly many old vine vineyards aren't prone to 'natural' overcropping, and their larger root mass and access to soil nutrients might contribute to more complexity in wine flavors compared to restricted yields in younger vines; they might have higher acid as well. This is assuming the same canopy management in the same vineyard. My understanding is that Bordeaux's general fertility would allow higher yields and thus their hectoliter/hectare restrictions, which vary by appellation, are meant to force the chateaus within the area to make less and better wines. I'm not a fan of this thinking, but then many American winemakers are just a bunch of legal dope dealers and so have a libertarian bent . . .

stillmanbrown


quality posts: 141 Private Messages stillmanbrown

Well, you can stress the vine in other ways - canopy management and drought - and hope that a hot spell doesn't make a RP wine for you. That said, I'm looking at some Region IV Aglianico - since I've taken a vacation from my NM and AZ consulting, I need something ridiculous to occupy my August besides throwing parties. (Thanks dude.)

SonomaBouliste


quality posts: 234 Private Messages SonomaBouliste
otolith wrote:Thanks for the article. Sometimes I wished I lived in Wine Country so I could go to all these awesome events.

Is there ever a time where the vines have optimal conditions and their yields are attempted to be maximized? Say, old vines that just don't produce a lot of grapes? How do those vines differ in the fruit produced vs young, vigorous vines where the yield is kept low?

I would also be curious about your thoughts on Bordeaux, where, IIRC, there are limits placed on how many tons of grapes per acre/hectare that can be harvested and some of the rationale behind this.



There are two aspects to AOC limitations on yields. The first reason is market control. The French system limits how much wine per hectare from a given appellation can be sold, not how much a vineyard produces. The legal "yields" are expressed in wine volume (hectoliters) rather than tonnage. If a premier cru vineyard in Burgundy produces 6 tons per acre (it happens) that will result in approx. 85 hectoliters per hectare. The producer will only be allowed to sell a certain amount of that labelled as the premier cru vineyard. Excess wine will have to declassified (sold with a less prestigious appellation). Most of these laws were written when it was common for growers to sell wine in bulk to negociants who bottled the wine, and provided price support protection.
The other reason is (or was historically) related to quality. Back in the day, particularly in Burgundy and Bordeaux, most grapes did not ripen fully in most years. Addition of sugar (chaptalization) was routine, often in excessive amounts, to reach even 12 or 13% alcohol. Larger crops would be even less ripe, resulting in weak, low quality wines that could have a negative effect on a region's reputation. Global climate change, virus free vines and other technological improvements have dramatically increased the ability of vineyards to ripen grapes in these regions in recent decades.
Don't get me wrong, overcropping does have negative impacts on wine quality. Legislating yields is still more about market control / price support than anything else.

klezman


quality posts: 123 Private Messages klezman

Very interesting! I've often heard the "yield" bandied about as if it was directly related to quality/intensity. It's nice to know that's another marketing ploy (at least somewhat).

So if each varietal has different preferences and ripening capabilities, how does a winegrower/maker determine what is the optimal way to crop or manage the canopy? Is there a way to "encourage" smaller berry formation to optimize the skin/flesh ratio? How does canopy management work, even? I've always wondered about the effects of different trellising methods also (I've seen 1/2/4 arms, or no trellis at all).

So many questions - but so many brilliant winemakers here to help answer! Thanks!

2014: 32 bottles. Last wine.woot: Scott Harvey Jana Cathedral 3 L
2013: 66 bottles, 2012: 91 bottles, 2011: 92 bottles, 2010: 74 bottles, 2009: 30 bottles, 2008: 3 bottles My CT

rpm


quality posts: 172 Private Messages rpm
SonomaBouliste wrote:There are two aspects to AOC limitations on yields. The first reason is market control. The French system limits how much wine per hectare from a given appellation can be sold, not how much a vineyard produces. The legal "yields" are expressed in wine volume (hectoliters) rather than tonnage. If a premier cru vineyard in Burgundy produces 6 tons per acre (it happens) that will result in approx. 85 hectoliters per hectare. The producer will only be allowed to sell a certain amount of that labelled as the premier cru vineyard. Excess wine will have to declassified (sold with a less prestigious appellation). Most of these laws were written when it was common for growers to sell wine in bulk to negociants who bottled the wine, and provided price support protection.
The other reason is (or was historically) related to quality. Back in the day, particularly in Burgundy and Bordeaux, most grapes did not ripen fully in most years. Addition of sugar (chaptalization) was routine, often in excessive amounts, to reach even 12 or 13% alcohol. Larger crops would be even less ripe, resulting in weak, low quality wines that could have a negative effect on a region's reputation. Global climate change, virus free vines and other technological improvements have dramatically increased the ability of vineyards to ripen grapes in these regions in recent decades.
Don't get me wrong, overcropping does have negative impacts on wine quality. Legislating yields is still more about market control / price support than anything else.



A lucid and helpful explanation of a phenomenon widely known in the trade, but little understood among consumers. When I was young, there was something of a sport trying to figure out who got the declassified 'over' production from premier (and rarely even grand) cru vineyards. This was especially the case in really good years, when there were oceans of great juice around. Even simple AOCs would be excellent.

In California, there was no legal requirement to sell off overproduction, but in some years there was very large production and excellent conditions. 1970, of course, was amazing: the top wines were great and are still fine, though past peak (I had a 1970 BV Latour about six months ago), and the the quantity of quality fruit was huge. I can't remember a failure in Napa or Sonoma Cabernet or Zinfandel, and the generics were better than most varietals from average years, because there was a lot of quite good wine available on the bulk market. BV's generic "Burgundy" was so good they kept close to half of it back and didn't release it until around 1978 (at a price higher than the 1970 Rutherford fetched on release in 1973 or 1974) NB: I have occasionally wondered whether, if there had not been the huge increase in demand for California win in the mid-1970s, some of the wineries would have been able to return to the old pre-Prohibition California Wine Association practice of building stocks of aged wine for release at ages of up to 10. But, 'twas not to be.

Most of us generally associate lower production per acre with better quality - ceterus paribus, but of course, things aren't always equal. Others have point to the many crucial decisions that can affect yield, from the way the vines are trained, cropping, canopy management, irrigation, etc. And, as SB points out, vines can be healthier or less healthy - think of the effects of leafroll - and that, too, affects quality. Many of the old winemakers thought a little leafroll was a good thing (though my great uncle Tony did not).

Fascinating topic!

Wine-tasting in 8 words:
Pull lots of corks!
Remember what you taste!

richardhod


quality posts: 261 Private Messages richardhod
rpm wrote:A lucid and helpful explanation of a phenomenon widely known in the trade, but little understood among consumers. When I was young, there was something of a sport trying to figure out who got the declassified 'over' production from premier (and rarely even grand) cru vineyards. This was especially the case in really good years, when there were oceans of great juice around. Even simple AOCs would be excellent.

In California, there was no legal requirement to sell off overproduction, but in some years there was very large production and excellent conditions. 1970, of course, was amazing: the top wines were great and are still fine, though past peak (I had a 1970 BV Latour about six months ago), and the the quantity of quality fruit was huge. I can't remember a failure in Napa or Sonoma Cabernet or Zinfandel, and the generics were better than most varietals from average years, because there was a lot of quite good wine available on the bulk market. BV's generic "Burgundy" was so good they kept close to half of it back and didn't release it until around 1978 (at a price higher than the 1970 Rutherford fetched on release in 1973 or 1974) NB: I have occasionally wondered whether, if there had not been the huge increase in demand for California win in the mid-1970s, some of the wineries would have been able to return to the old pre-Prohibition California Wine Association practice of building stocks of aged wine for release at ages of up to 10. But, 'twas not to be.

Most of us generally associate lower production per acre with better quality - ceterus paribus, but of course, things aren't always equal. Others have point to the many crucial decisions that can affect yield, from the way the vines are trained, cropping, canopy management, irrigation, etc. And, as SB points out, vines can be healthier or less healthy - think of the effects of leafroll - and that, too, affects quality. Many of the old winemakers thought a little leafroll was a good thing (though my great uncle Tony did not).

Fascinating topic!



Great story. That thought did occur to me a soon as I read that post too, but of course...glad to know the cognoscenti were at it decades ago! So, any mileage in working this kind of thing out still with lesser appellations (or say third-tier wines from a top vineyard) in a good year? I'm not quite sure where to start.

And now I'm going to have to go to t'internets to out what leaf roll is!

winesmith


quality posts: 49 Private Messages winesmith
klezman wrote:Very interesting! I've often heard the "yield" bandied about as if it was directly related to quality/intensity. It's nice to know that's another marketing ploy (at least somewhat).

So if each varietal has different preferences and ripening capabilities, how does a winegrower/maker determine what is the optimal way to crop or manage the canopy? Is there a way to "encourage" smaller berry formation to optimize the skin/flesh ratio? How does canopy management work, even? I've always wondered about the effects of different trellising methods also (I've seen 1/2/4 arms, or no trellis at all).

So many questions - but so many brilliant winemakers here to help answer! Thanks!



Again, the tail doesn't wag the dog. Small berries are a common attribute of concentrated wines, but that doesn't mean decreasing berry size necessarily gives more concentration. Say a royal lineage has long noses; lengthening your nose doesn't make you a better leader.

The biggest influence on berry size is seed number. But the hormones seeds produce also stimulate pigment manufacture. So lower seed number (which can be caused by a large number of factors including poor fertilization due to stress or humidity during set) is problematic. Matt Glynn's PhD thesis on a single cluster of Napa Cabernet showed that the smaller berries in the cluster, the ones with lower seed number, had the LOWEST anthocyanin contribution.

Vines which are planted in special areas make special wines, and the truth is we usually don't know why. When we try to reverse engineer based on correlations, we often screw up.

Flecked sunlight on fruit, for most varieties, does seem to concentrate color, and cooling maritime influences do seem to retain fruit aromas. Artificially lowering yields cretes a denser, warmer canopy which inhibits flavor and color development.

There really is no substitute for being lucky enough to find a good piece of land and patient and dilligent enough to figure out how to get the most out of it, a work of decades.

PetiteSirah


quality posts: 80 Private Messages PetiteSirah
stillmanbrown wrote:My understanding is that Bordeaux's general fertility would allow higher yields and thus their hectoliter/hectare restrictions, which vary by appellation, are meant to force the chateaus within the area to make less and better wines. I'm not a fan of this thinking, but then many American winemakers are just a bunch of legal dope dealers and so have a libertarian bent . . .



That certainly explains my love of American wine . I wonder, do tannins and minerality keep oppressive government at bay?

Hail the victor, the king without flaw
Salute your new master ... Petite Sirah!


"Who has two thumbs and loves Petite Sirah?" ThisGuy!

PetiteSirah


quality posts: 80 Private Messages PetiteSirah
stillmanbrown wrote:Well, you can stress the vine in other ways - canopy management and drought - and hope that a hot spell doesn't make a RP wine for you. That said, I'm looking at some Region IV Aglianico - since I've taken a vacation from my NM and AZ consulting, I need something ridiculous to occupy my August besides throwing parties. (Thanks dude.)



Jeff Miller at 7 Artisans is growing some Aglianico out in Suisun and is very excited about it.

Hail the victor, the king without flaw
Salute your new master ... Petite Sirah!


"Who has two thumbs and loves Petite Sirah?" ThisGuy!

SonomaBouliste


quality posts: 234 Private Messages SonomaBouliste
klezman wrote:Very interesting! I've often heard the "yield" bandied about as if it was directly related to quality/intensity. It's nice to know that's another marketing ploy (at least somewhat).

So if each varietal has different preferences and ripening capabilities, how does a winegrower/maker determine what is the optimal way to crop or manage the canopy? Is there a way to "encourage" smaller berry formation to optimize the skin/flesh ratio? How does canopy management work, even? I've always wondered about the effects of different trellising methods also (I've seen 1/2/4 arms, or no trellis at all).

So many questions - but so many brilliant winemakers here to help answer! Thanks!



A proper reply to your questions would take way too long. Grape quality is influenced by site (climate, aspect and soil), rootstock, "clonal" selection, spacing, trellising, pruning and canopy management, irrigation, fertilization, and I'm probably forgetting something. Many of these factors interact with each other, and a holistic understanding / approach is necessary.

kylemittskus


quality posts: 231 Private Messages kylemittskus
SonomaBouliste wrote:A proper reply to your questions would take way too long. Grape quality is influenced by site (climate, aspect and soil), rootstock, "clonal" selection, spacing, trellising, pruning and canopy management, irrigation, fertilization, and I'm probably forgetting something. Many of these factors interact with each other, and a holistic understanding / approach is necessaery.



You forgot the buried crystals and horns, the naked full moon harvest, the eels, and burnt rat skins.

"If drinking is bitter, change yourself to wine." -Rainer Maria Rilke

"Champagne is a very kind and friendly thing on a rainy night." -Isak Dinesen

klezman


quality posts: 123 Private Messages klezman
SonomaBouliste wrote:A proper reply to your questions would take way too long. Grape quality is influenced by site (climate, aspect and soil), rootstock, "clonal" selection, spacing, trellising, pruning and canopy management, irrigation, fertilization, and I'm probably forgetting something. Many of these factors interact with each other, and a holistic understanding / approach is necessaery.



Yeah, I knew that it was opening a huge topic when I was throwing it out for you all to gnaw on. But I guess the one at the top of my mind right now is how the trellising affects things. It's been one of the more obvious questions whenever I am near a vineyard since the different styles are pretty obvious. I at least have a gestalt level understanding of the soil/climate/microclimate considerations. So adding a layer to that is always a good thing.

2014: 32 bottles. Last wine.woot: Scott Harvey Jana Cathedral 3 L
2013: 66 bottles, 2012: 91 bottles, 2011: 92 bottles, 2010: 74 bottles, 2009: 30 bottles, 2008: 3 bottles My CT

otolith


quality posts: 22 Private Messages otolith
SonomaBouliste wrote:There are two aspects to AOC limitations on yields. The first reason is market control. The French system limits how much wine per hectare from a given appellation can be sold, not how much a vineyard produces. The legal "yields" are expressed in wine volume (hectoliters) rather than tonnage. If a premier cru vineyard in Burgundy produces 6 tons per acre (it happens) that will result in approx. 85 hectoliters per hectare. The producer will only be allowed to sell a certain amount of that labelled as the premier cru vineyard. Excess wine will have to declassified (sold with a less prestigious appellation). Most of these laws were written when it was common for growers to sell wine in bulk to negociants who bottled the wine, and provided price support protection.
The other reason is (or was historically) related to quality. Back in the day, particularly in Burgundy and Bordeaux, most grapes did not ripen fully in most years. Addition of sugar (chaptalization) was routine, often in excessive amounts, to reach even 12 or 13% alcohol. Larger crops would be even less ripe, resulting in weak, low quality wines that could have a negative effect on a region's reputation. Global climate change, virus free vines and other technological improvements have dramatically increased the ability of vineyards to ripen grapes in these regions in recent decades.
Don't get me wrong, overcropping does have negative impacts on wine quality. Legislating yields is still more about market control / price support than anything else.



Thanks for the additional insight.

It would be nice to get Bordeaux wines at a cheaper price, but I think those days are gone...

"When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe."
--John Muir

SmilingBoognish


quality posts: 47 Private Messages SmilingBoognish
winesmith wrote:Vines which are planted in special areas make special wines, and the truth is we usually don't know why. When we try to reverse engineer based on correlations, we often screw up.



alchemy!

thanks for the article and thanks to all for the fascinating discussion.

WineWootaholic


quality posts: 1 Private Messages WineWootaholic
SonomaBouliste wrote: Grape quality is influenced by site (climate, aspect and soil), rootstock, "clonal" selection, spacing, trellising, pruning and canopy management, irrigation, fertilization, and I'm probably forgetting something. (like Hail?)



I don't know if I mentioned this before, but in 1986 when I was making homemade wine in Northern Indiana, I had traveled up to Michigan to get my Concords (that's about all they grew back then) anyway, my normal vineyard was all sold out, so as I was driving back, on a back road I saw a sign...."Grapes for Sale" well the owner of the vineyard, said, you can pick them if you want, but they got damaged from Hail last week, and they are all pitted and dried out.
it took a long time to pick, as the berries were less than half the size of a concord, but I went ahead and picked them, with a lot of the juice dried out, The Berry Juice vs Skin ratio was fantastic, was the best Concord wine I ever made, I actually think I cried, when I opened the last bottle in the mid 90's. so yes berry size (and the resulting juice to skin ratio) is a major player, no matter how it is achieved.

wwa

A man not old, but mellow, like good wine,
Stephen Phillips (1845-1915)

"I love cooking with wine, Sometimes I even put it in the food."

33 wine.woot's, 9 woot-off wines