Thursday, June 10

Do low yielding vineyards necessarily produce better wine grapes?

by Stillman Brown

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.