Yield versus Quality


The assumption that vineyard yield and wine quality are inversely related is deeply ingrained. No one would argue that yield and quality are related but the experiences of top producers in Bordeaux, Burgundy and California show how complex the subject is and how misleading generalizations are, such as lower yields, old vines and non-irrigated vineyards produce better wine. In fact, during the last decade, the highest quality wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy have come from the highest yielding vintages and the worst wines have come from the lowest yielding vintages. The famous California Cabernet Sauvignon that won the 1976 blind tasting in Paris was produced from the vineyard’s first crop. As vines weaken from old age, yields drop but the quality is not necessarily better. And irrigation (rain in Bordeaux and Burgundy), by reducing vine stress, is indispensable to what are acknowledged to be some of the world’s great wines.

These misunderstandings have taken hold because talk about low yields sells wine. From Dominique Lafon’s (Domaine des Comtes Lafon in Meursault) point of view, responsibility lies in part with growers in Burgundy who feed wine writers misleading information in order to sell their wine. He adds that wine writers are also to blame for perpetuating these notions, “Growers like to talk to journalists about low yields and journalists like to hear things like this. The wine writers all know how to taste wine, but when they get into technique, they don’t know enough about it. To look at the vineyard, your eyes have to be trained, but who among the journalists know about vineyards and viticulture? Some producers here are talking low yields but with so many dead vines in their vineyards that it’s nonsense, it means nothing.” Jean-Michel Cazes, owner of Chateau Lynch Bages concurs, “It makes me crazy when I see people just looking at one figure—the number of hectoliters/hectare—without looking into the plantation density and the condition of the vineyard.”

By examining the factors affecting yield and quality: growing region, vineyard site, vine density, clone, grape variety, pruning and crop thinning and the complexity of the relationships between all of these factors, this article will demystify some of the long-held assumptions and show why generalizations about yield and quality can be misleading.

—Practical Winery & Vineyard 1999–2000