Random Ramblings of a Weary Winemaker: Does (Crop) Size Really Matter?

by Peter Wellington

Less is More, Isn’t It? - Fri. Feb. 8, 2008

There is a widely held belief that wine quality is inversely proportional to yields. I would like to look into when and where these ideas came about and if /when they are valid. Yields in Europe are typically expressed in hectoliters per hectare, an amount of wine per area measure rather than grape yield, and this is an important distinction. The first appellation laws and yield restrictions in France were designed as market control measures to protect both price and image of a region’s wines. They date to a time when wineries generally sold wine in bulk and rarely bottled at the winery. Bottled wines were marketed with regional names (e.g. Burgundy), sometimes adding a village name (e.g. Pommard), and occasionally a vineyard name (e.g. Les Épenots), but very rarely the producer’s name. Grower/wineries wanted to protect the value of their product both by limiting production and maintaining quality. Allowing each grower to sell only a certain amount of wine helped protect against both overproduction and various types of fraud. Note that nothing in these laws limit the crop your vines produce, only how much wine you can sell with a given appellation. A few years ago one of the regular writers for The Wine Spectator devoted his entire column to the news that the commune of Puligny-Montrachet, home to some of the greatest Chardonnay vineyards in the world, had voted not to allow increased “yields” for the previous vintage. He went on and on about their integrity and about how they were maintaining high quality because higher yields lower the wine quality. He seemed to completely miss the point that the grape yield had been huge and they were only deciding how much wine would be allowed to be sold as Puligny-Montrachet (the rest would have to be sold as “Bourgogne”).

We also need to look at the definition of grape and wine quality and how that has changed. Historically, ripeness and alcohol level were the most obvious quality factors. In regions such as Burgundy and Bordeaux under ripe grapes were the norm. Therefore the riper (or “less under ripe”) the grapes, the better the wine. In this situation smaller crops would almost always result in “better” wine. With better viticulture and, dare I say it, global climate change, ripeness is much less of an issue than it used to be. Even the French are learning there can be too much of a good thing. With better winemaking technology and knowledge the definition of wine quality has also changed somewhat, at least to the extent that low alcohol levels and spoilage issues are nowhere near as prevalent as just a few decades ago.

I think everyone involved in winegrowing would agree that over cropping lowers wine quality. Only a minority (myself included) would contend that “under cropping” also lowers quality. I believe that vines produce the best fruit and best wine when they are balanced and the fruit ripens gradually but completely. So how do we define “ripens completely”? That means different things to different people. As an example, some winemakers actually want 16%+ alcohol, so one of their criteria might be minimum 28º brix (28% sugar w/v).

How do we define crop size and yield? The most common metric used in the U.S. is tons per acre (TPA). We all use that kind of number when we talk about our wines, especially when we have low yields. Few catchphrases or buzzwords are as commonly used in wine promotion as “low yields”. I plead guilty. However, there is no way we can put a number on the ideal crop size. What if a grower had rows 12 feet apart (the most common row width from postwar up into the 80’s) and planted a new row in between each row, reducing his row width to 6 feet? If his yield went from 3½ tons per acre to 7 tons per acre would the quality be diminished? I know a grower who did this in the 80’s, and the answer is no. Another way of measuring yield might be lbs. per vine; I have a friend who contends that each vine should have a maximum of 6-8 pounds (PPV) of fruit. If your vines are 6 feet apart in the row and you plant vines in between so that the vines are 3 feet apart, but still have 6-8 PPV would the quality be diminished? Yes, if that original 6-8 PPV was the right amount. I like to think in terms of lbs. of fruit per foot of trellis wire. This takes out the variables of spacing. Of course, all the numbers are meaningless if the vines are not healthy and balanced and the fruit evenly distributed and evenly exposed to light.

So, if we can measure yield in a way that best correlates to vine balance and grape quality (lbs./ft.), can we come up with a number for the crop that will ripen completely for any particular winemaker’s ideals? Again, no. We’ve got more variables to deal with, specifically site and year. Given the same spacing, etc., 3 TPA could be too much for one vineyard one year and 8 TPA ideal for another vineyard. I’m not trying to say yield doesn’t affect quality, just that numbers don’t tell you much at all. For me, crop levels for both our vineyard and those we buy from are determined rather subjectively. Fruit thinning decisions (we thin more than half of both our blocks and growers’ vineyards) are made using past experience, flowering dates and intuition.

Our 84 to 116 year old vines produce 1 TPA or less, and I use that statistic regularly and shamelessly. There are many missing vines and many very weak, small (slowly dying) vines in those old blocks. In my opinion, the best fruit comes from the vines that are still healthy and reasonably vigorous, and those vines typically crop at the equivalent of three TPA. If we had an old vineyard full of completely healthy vines I believe we could make even better wines at 3TPA than we do currently at 1TPA or less.

No Occupation For Old Men - Fri. Feb. 22, 2008

We bottle five or six times a year, spread between February and August. After nearly six months since the last bottling it was back to my least favorite part of the business this week. Bottling is very stressful; it is when the greatest amount of bad things can happen in the shortest time frame. It also involves long days of preparation. I don’t want wines to be in tank any longer than necessary, especially whites and rosé, so the racking and filtration schedule is calculated backwards from the bottling date. A few days before the bottling our mobile bottling company called to move the start of bottling from 8 AM Thurs. to 11 AM Weds. because they were concerned we might not be able to finish everything in eight hours. This put a little more pressure on me by taking away the cushion I had left in case of difficult filtration, and Murphy was right. We hadn’t racked our rosé since it had gone into barrels and a small tank at the end of fermentation, and it was pretty cloudy, making for very problematic filtration. I started filtering at 7AM Tuesday, and around ten I was carrying a six ft. stepladder when I tripped over a wine hose. I spun to avoid falling on the ladder and landed on my hip and back and hit my head on a door. If I had been a few inches closer to the door I probably would have knocked myself out. I had to work 12 hours more after the fall, and I’m still quite sore (my hip and I must have twisted my knee going down). It gets me to wondering how much longer I can, or want to, do this. The bottling went off all right, but it was fortunate the bottler allowed extra time – we had a problem with crooked necks on one of the two types of glass we used. This forced the bottling line to run at two-thirds normal speed, adding a couple of hours to the job. The “quality control” person from the glass supplier came out, measured bottles, and told us they were all “in spec”. This supplier already had two strikes against them, so we won’t be using their glass again. As the guy who owns the bottling truck said, “If these are in spec, their specs suck!”