Yield versus Quality, Part 8


A clonal vineyard is a vineyard made up of vines of identical genetic make-up, producing grapes of similar size and composition. But over time, random genetic mutations occur so that the vineyard is no longer a single clone but a collection of vines producing grape clusters of different size, berry color and ripeness. George Hendry, owner and winemaker at Hendry Vineyards explains, “What I call a clone is when I can look at every vine in the vineyard and I can say that fairly recently, it came from one vine in say, the Dijon Field Station if it’s a Dijon 115 clone. I have a block of that and I know that wood was recently imported and is probably genetically still quite close to the Dijon 115.” Hendry compares the term selection, “When I get bud wood from an old vineyard that I like, that would be a selection because I cannot trace it with reasonable assurance to one vine.” For example, all California Chardonnay is thought to come from Wente’s original planting in Livermore. The numerous Old Wente clones are in fact, not clones because they bear little genetic resemblance to the vines planted 100 years ago. Hendry adds, “I actually have two different selections which I call Old Wente 1 and Old Wente 2. They tend to be rather poor setting so yields are relatively low. Because that vineyard has been around for a very long time the genetic diversity and hence the flavor diversity in the wine tends to be quite high. You’re getting different things from each which show up in the wine.”

Mahoney explains, “Each clone makes a personality statement, kind of like an artist working with different colors. If one vintage’s weather pattern takes away something from one clone, you can usually put it back in there for your house style by selecting another clone. It’s not unusual for us to have 40 different lots of Pinot Noir and it’s not necessarily just that they arrived on different days, that could be, but the more overriding issue is that we try to keep the clones from a particular vineyard separate and utilize them as ingredients in the context of our house style.”

Clone is not a big issue in Bordeaux as Pontallier explains, “In Bordeaux, you have in the same terroir, some good clones and some lesser ones. It’s not a huge thing but it is another factor to consider, but after several others, like terroir. There is less variation between the clones of Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot than in Burgundy, where clone is more important because there is a wider genetic variation between the clones of Pinot Noir.”

The debate in Burgundy is between growers who over the last 25 years have planted individual clones and those who have stayed with the traditional selection process called mass selection. Mass selection involves the selection of the best vines from a standpoint of favorable fruit set, yield and ripening. Buds are removed and grafted onto new vines, as Etienne Grivot explains, “You go into your vineyard and you make a selection of the best vines. It is dangerous because even if the leaves seem very good, maybe you have some illness inside. Even if you are a good winegrower, the job is too difficult, you don’t have the competence to know this.” As Grivot alludes to, a vine that may appear to be healthy and vigorous may actually contain virus, which is unknowingly transmitted to the new vines.

Mass selected vineyards, by containing numerous different, unidentified clones can express more of the variation and complexity of the Pinot Noir grape. But Roumier says the problem with massale is that it is an irregular selection, “It is extremely hazardous because without exceptionally healthy, old vines from which you can select buds, you multiply the virus in your vines, and they may not get really old and then you have to replant earlier. Is this really better than good clones from the beginning that are able to age?” Roumier relies on clone while recognizing the benefits of massale selection, “Nowadays we have good yielding clones that are able to produce grapes of really good constitution, so we can match some massale selection with some good clones. When I replant vineyards, I use eight different clones and I always plant with them, a massale selection which represents about 10% of the total plantation. The massale selection is not mine because I don’t have in my vineyards in Chambolle, the good, old vines to give me the buds to make the massale selection myself. So I buy it from someone who I trust.”

In Burgundy, the first clonal selection was done about 25 years ago. Vineyards older than this were planted by mass selection. Seysses, who has been replanting with clonal selections for 22 years explains why looking at vine age only can be misleading without considering the quality of the selection: “Some old vines have a great selection and produce small berries which make very good wine. Some old vines that have a very poor selection will produce big berries and the wine is not very good. I have in the Clos St. Denis area, for example, three plots, one is a 12 year-old clonal selection making wonderful wine, another is a 40 year old clonal selection doing very well and another plot with 40 year old vines which is not doing as well because the selection was very poor at the beginning.”

Grivot is a believer in clones, “I don’t know why people are against clones. From 1985 we have planted vineyards with clones and the results have been absolutely perfect, better than if you use a bad selection with old vines.”

Lafon further documents the fact that fruit quality with old vines is dependent on the quality of the original selection, “I have a vineyard in Volnay Champans which is 75 years old. When I took over, the guy who was running the vineyard told me that, ‘when the vineyard was young, it was so beautiful, everybody was taking grafts from it.’ I pulled out the vines from a small part of it and did a massale selection from cuttings from the best vines I had selected during a three-year period. It was amazing - we kept just 20 vines out of 1,000 vines we had planted. While there were some interesting small berries in the massale, there were plenty of really high production type of vines, showing that the old selection was fairly productive.” Lafon explains that chemicals were not yet available to fight disease and growers were losing a lot of grapes to mildew. These growers were struggling financially and were looking for nice production vines so a lot of the selections planted at that time were for big grapes.

At the heart of the controversy is the convention of expressing yield in terms of tons/acre of hectoliters/hectare. Growers who have replanted their vineyards to clonal selections have approximately 9,900 vines producing out of 10,000 resulting in higher yields per hectare and lower yields per vine than mass selected vineyards.

Yield/vine is a more accurate measure of quality because a lower yield/vine means that each vine is better able to fully ripen a smaller cropload. And with more vines/hectare, yield/hectare goes up along with quality. A clonal vineyard producing 30hl/ha is actually carrying half the yield/vine as a mass selected vineyard yielding 15hl/ha with half of the vines dead or sterile will, yet the stated yield is double! Winemakers are annoyed when wine writers who fail to understand this distinction.

Lafon comments, “When you get a very old vineyard having one vine out of three vines in production, sure you can talk about very low yield but what does it mean? Some producers here in Burgundy are talking low yields but with so many dead vines in their vineyards that it means nothing. It is better to have an average age vineyard with a low yield per vine than having one out of three vines in production.” He adds that if you have an old vineyard in good shape versus a young vineyard in good shape, the old vineyard will make better wine.

Lafon compares the performance of a vineyard containing clones with vines propagated through mass selection: “I have a bit of young vines (6 years old, clonal selection) in Meursault Charmes, the other part is 65 years old (mass selection) and this year in ‘97, I had the exact same crop in both vineyards - 40h/h. If you go back to crop/vine, in the 6-year-old vines, it is smaller than the crop/vine in the old vineyard. The 65 year old vineyard is missing some vines and some are not producing, whereas all of the vines are producing in the young vineyard.” This means 10,000 vines/hectare which is why Lafon explains that it is more work keeping yields down in a clonal vineyard, “each vine is in good shape and produces grapes. You can deal with clonal selection and not have too big production as long as you prune short enough and don’t use fertilizer. You can adjust the pruning to have the exact crop you want. However, the quality is not as good from the young vines, but in time they will make very good wine.”

Jean-Michel Cazes explains that wine writers do not factor in spacing when they talk about the yields, “a yield that may appear very low, might be actually be a relatively high yield when you look at the plantation density and the other way around. If you take a vineyard which is 7,500 plants/hectare with 35% of the plants missing and then you have another vineyard which is 9,000 plants/hectare with no plants missing, you would expect that with the same kind of care and dedication you would get twice as much wine in the second example. I resent the kind of speech that ‘my wine is great because I only produce 20h/h.’ I think that is ridiculous. What is the actual yield per existing plant? I remember one of the leading Chateau’s in the Medoc years ago. The owner, who lived in Paris, was very proud because his vineyards only produced 25h/h. And at the same time, the manager of the vineyard would tell me that he would just maintain the part of the vineyard that could be seen from the terrace; the rest of the vineyard was a disaster.” Cazes states that getting 20-25h/h means either low density, bad maintenance or heterogeneity of the plantation. “It’s not that you don’t produce fine wines with 20-25h/h, but it’s not necessary, at least in Bordeaux. In Burgundy, it’s different, Pinot Noir is less productive, everything being equal, you get less grapes with Pinot Noir than with Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon. So instead of getting 45-50h/h in a very good vineyard, you would get 35h/h.”

According to Cazes, there has been a long debate in France about doing away with the concept of yield per hectare. “I remember Monsieur Borie of Ducru Beaucaillou wanted to go from a maximum yield per hectare to a maximum yield per plant. But it’s too complicated to survey, the INAO didn’t have the means to maintain a file with the density of plantation for each individual grower.” The simplest method is to measure the yield per hectare which is invalid without considering density, condition and another factor, homogeneity. “If you look at the parcels of old vines, one vine has one or two clusters and the next one has five or six. I think the modern plantation and nursery techniques can provide us with more homogenous materials to plant. A low yield in a well-maintained vineyard with homogenous production of 40 or 45h/h with old vines is perfect.”