Yield versus Quality, Part 6


As Prats points out, the best wines are produced from vineyard sites which naturally control vine vigor and therefore yield, making the selection of the proper vineyard site critical. The French refer to site with a more all-encompassing term, terroir, the sum total of all physical factors affecting the vine: soil depth, composition, drainage, water holding capacity, slope and exposition. Cazes adds, “The soil is the basis of the site, or terroir as we say. Latour is the best vineyard in Bordeaux. Why is that, just because where it is, that particular hill. The soil is thick, at the same time very porous, the water doesn’t stay in the soil, there are lots of pebbles, it’s a warmer microclimate than the others resulting in better ripening.”

Unlike France which has a 200-year head start, California is still identifying the sites where its greatest wines will come from. Draper states, “Only wines whose character is determined by the site rather than the winemaking have the potential to be “great wines” in the historical sense of that phrase. If a producer attempts to make great wine, site becomes of overriding importance.” Yet in California, more is heard about the winemaker’s than the vineyard’s contribution to quality. Although this is changing, Draper explains why terroir is a more central concept in France, “The French depend on a single vineyard to produce a very high quality wine, which is radically different from a new world definition in which quality is achieved through blending the wines from different vineyards, where no one wine need stand alone nor be of distinctive quality.”

According to Pontallier, the importance of site can overshadow even that of old vines. The oldest vines, which he considers to be over 35 years old, do not necessarily produce the most concentrated and profound wines every year. “It depends once more on the site, the location, than on all of the other factors. The best sites are those where the vines are never stressed—a well-drained site with good water reserves where if it rains too much the vines are not overfed with water or if there is a lack of water they can still find some water resources. Too much water makes for an excess of vigor and of course that is not good for the quality of the wine.”

Howell says it is important to understand your vineyard in terms of its site, “For a rich, fertile soil—defined by deep rooting depth (5 feet), fairly well-drained with good nutrients and availability to water—you have to have higher yields and the potential for quality is just not there.” Bledsoe agrees saying that, “It’s quite obvious that for a lower price point wine you have to have a higher yield so you should plant in a site that is likely to give you higher yields. In some growing areas it is appropriate for the goal to be 8-10 tons/acre because that is what is needed to produce an $8 bottle of wine and stay competitive. The problem in any discussion of yield and quality is that no one qualifies it by saying ‘our goal is trying to produce a $30 bottle of wine or a $12 bottle.”

Francis Mahoney explains how great Pinot Noir, unlike great Chardonnay is entirely dependent on site, “If you’ve got a fertile site in the Carneros, you plant Chardonnay where yield is not so crucial and the winemaker is going to take over and do his magic through the use of yeast and oak. That is not to say that a low-yielding Chardonnay isn’t spectacular, but generally, the public doesn’t appreciate it as much. But when you get to Pinot Noir, you put it on river bottom soil and you end up with vegetative, tomato leaf flavors, color suffers and it’s watered down with no texture. Even if you drop the crop through green harvesting you’re still not going to achieve what you want. When people say Pinot Noir is hard to grow, it’s really not hard to grow, it’s just more site specific.”

Steve Hill from the Durell Ranch stresses the importance of matching the crop level to the productivity of individual vineyard blocks. “We want to stay in business and we simply want to raise the most grapes we can without affecting quality. So we generally let the site dictate to us what that crop level should be. Some sites are very productive and we’ll let the vine be in balance and on those sites we will get higher yields.” The Durell Ranch sells grapes to numerous wineries and Hill points out that quality means different things to different people, depending on the wine they are trying to make. “All of the wineries want quality but there are two sides to perceived quality: one is simply clean grapes, without mildew, without leaves, without rot. If a winery gets those types of grapes, they may be satisfied. Another is a winery that wants not only clean grapes but they want the best grapes to make the best wine.”

Lafon addresses the popular assumption that yields per hectare are lower on Grand Cru vineyards compared to Premier Cru vineyards. “No, that is not always true. You could produce as much on a Grand Cru as you could on another vineyard, but you manage the vineyard to make a smaller crop. Corton Charlemagne, Chevalier Montrachet and Musigny are known for small production because of their poor soil. But there is nice soil in Richebourg, Montrachet, Batard Montrachet and Chambertin and I am sure in those Grand Crus you could make 50h/h every year. So then it’s cultivation work to achieve a smaller crop.”

In California, with replantings due to phylloxera, the challenge is matching site and grape variety. The late Justin Meyer commented, “The first step is finding a good site and planting the correct variety. You get that right and everything kind of falls in place. You screw it up and all the other stuff – trellis systems, spacing – are just Band Aids to try and fix the fact that you didn’t adapt the right variety to the right soil.” He explained the difficulties of this process, “You can make some educated guesses, look at soil moisture capacity and fertility and rootstock, but it’s still a crap shoot. But we should be smarter now because we have the experience from last planting boom which began in 1972. So we would be fools to go back and plant the same variety someplace where it didn’t do well.” According to Draper, “It is only after a vineyard is mature (10-12 years old) and the fruit, of itself, produces distinctive character and high quality, that the grower will know that his choice of site and varietal was correct.”