Yield versus Quality, Part 9

Vine Density

Vine density has important implications for yield since the more vines/acre, the higher the yield/acre. Quality implications are less clear, as great wines are produced from differing spacing regimes. Spacing in Bordeaux and Burgundy is 1m x 1m. Lemon speculates, “the reason the vines are planted so densely is because the vines were farmed by hand using horses for many, many years. There was no fertilizer or virus control.” He adds that in the absence of modern viticultural techniques to keep vineyards healthy, the maximum number of vines/hectare were planted to compensate for the inevitable loss of vines. Furthermore, high density is necessary in Bordeaux and Burgundy. Their low vigor soils means the vines will never get very big so packing them close together is the most efficient utilization of the site. Dokoozlian articulates, “The spacing in France is based on shallower, lower fertility soils. When you don’t irrigate and you have drought periods where you don’t get a lot of vigor, you need high density in order to get economic yields.”

Andy Beckstoffer describes changes in California vineyards spacing, “Today, land values are so high so that we have to be smarter about our farming technology and that means closer spacing—utilizing all the sunlight and soil in a given acre. The land has been underutilized. We knew that, but even if we produced more grapes, who was going to buy them?” Close spacing on the richer soils of California means dense canopies close to one another requiring higher canopy management costs to prevent shading and poor air circulation. Nonetheless, the trend in California is to increase planting denisty for new vineyards. But the premise that few disagree with is that competition between neighboring vines for available moisture and nutrients results in smaller vines making it easier for each vine to fully ripen its smaller cropload before the threat of rain increases. But there are limits on vine density depending on site, variety and a winegrower’s attitudes toward change. These factors are illustrated by Calera’s new Pinot Noir plantings. Although the soils are similar to Burgundy—low nutrient, dry soils with little water holding capacity— wider spacing is necessary because the lack of rain during the growing season and an inability to irrigate. Bledsoe explains, “Your soil is your reservoir and you have to save all that area between vines for the winter moisture. The soils don’t have the water to support the higher density and the soil doesn’t have enough moisture and nutrition to support that root density.” Josh Jensen is doubling the density on his new vineyards—going from 6' x 10' (726 vines/acre) to 4' x 7.5' (1,452 vines/acre). With twice as many plants per acre, he is doubling his development costs/acre while maintaining yields of two tons/acre. Jensen is counting on improving the concentration and quality of what are already among California’s finest Pinot Noir. He adds, “I am investing in quality, I am putting my money where my mouth is.”

Vine density is in flux in California because growers are still figuring out what combination of spacing, rootstock, clone and soil will maximize yield and quality. Pontallier explains that France’s Appellation Controlee system, by specifying how a vineyard is to be planted, reflects a 200-year head start on California, “The privilege we have is that we have a longer experience than most others in the world. Spacing has changed in some parts of Bordeaux, but as far as the finest areas are concerned like the Medoc, we still have 10,000 vines/hectare, exactly the same as we had last century. It has not changed because it is part of the viticultural practices which have to be extremely well adapted to the site. If you change just one of them, you have the risk of ruining your potential for quality.”

Prats describes the relationship between vine vigor and plantation density in Bordeaux “In the Medoc, most of the classified growths have a density between 8,000 to 10,000 vines/hectare. In the rest of the Medoc, 6,500 vines/hectare is the rule. In the regional Bordeaux area it is about 4,000 vines/hectare. The soil is richer in the lesser class Chateaux, therefore the vines are more vigorous which calls for a lower density planting. Higher density works when the vines are very low in vigor. The close spacing forces a competition between the neighboring row which forces the rootstock to go down.”

In California, denser spacing is shifting the focus from yield /acre to yield/vine. Chris Howell agrees that what is important is not the amount of fruit per acre but the amount of fruit per vine, “As we are increasing vine density, we are hoping that the yields will increase but that quality will remain as good or perhaps even increase.” California’s traditional 8' x 12' spacing translates to 454 vines/acre. Howell points out that densities are increasing to a maximum of 2,000 vines/acre, “With five times as many vines, it doesn’t mean that you going to have five times as much fruit. But what if you have twice as much fruit? And that old, low density, barely trellised vineyard goes from producing 3 tons/acre to 6 tons/acre? Does that mean that the quality has necessarily declined? Of course not, the quality may be the best ever.” But Howell feels there are limits to improving quality with increased density, “You don’t get 8 tons/acre any way and produce high quality, I don’t care how many vines you have.”

Andy Humphrey, former Vineyard Manager for Archery Summit discusses Oregon’s transition to close spacing: “I started farming grapes in Yamhill Valley in 1986 and at that time everything in Oregon was on wide spacing (5 x 10 or 6 x 9) and dry-farmed with yields for Pinot Noir of 3.5 to 4 or more tons/acre, a little heavier than the trend is now. In 1988, Domaine Drouhin moved into the area and planted vineyards that were .85mx1m which they took directly from Burgundy. The first wine they released blew some people’s socks off and that was the impetus in Oregon for looking at close spacing.” Humphrey describes the influx of more technically trained people with experience from other growing regions, among them Gary Andrus from Pine Ridge and Ted Lemon from Littorai whose training was in Burgundy. “When Gary started looking at a Pinot Noir project, he was using Ted Lemon as his consultant. Not only did Domaine Drouhin reinforce the benefits of close spacing, but Gary, Ted and I went around and tasted hundreds of wines and what always came through was that the lower the yield, the higher the quality. If you walk into the vineyards of those producing the highest priced wines and the highest rated wines you will see close spacing, low yields, and balanced plants. If you walk into the vineyards of those producers in Oregon making $8 bottles of Pinot Noir you will see big yields, bushy plants, wide spacing and late ripening.”

Humphrey discusses the importance of what the French have known for many years—keeping yield/vine low to achieve ripeness while increasing the number of vines/acre to attain economic yields. “6' x 9' spacing and 3.5 tons/acre produces mediocre wine. You can make excellent wine with 6' x 9' spacing, but you have to get the yield/vine down so low that you can’t stay in business. If you are making a $50/bottle of wine off 6' x 9' spacing at 1 ton/acre, this is uneconomical. If you double the number of plants/acre while keeping the yield/vine low, you double your yield while maintaining quality. So far to date this has held true.” This is illustrated in the table below showing two different spacing regimes where pounds/plant and wine quality are, according to Humphrey, the same. “The closer spacing is more labor intensive; you have four times as many plants but it does not cost four times as much to farm. The key is pounds/plant, which is the same in both of these spacing scenarios, but the wider spacing is a poorer utilization of the ground and the sunlight.”


Spacing Vines/Acre Tons/Acre $/Ton $/Acre Cost/Acre Profit/Acre
6' x 9' 806 1 2,000 2,000 $1,500 $500
3.5' x 6' 2074 3 2,000 6,000 $2200 $3,800

Even though many of the top Oregon producers have gone to dense spacing, Humphrey explains why the issue of clone makes comparing quality between wide and dense spacing difficult, “At about the same time that phylloxera became a problem, new clones such as Dijon became available, producing smaller clusters and smaller berries which tended to ripen earlier. The current trend is 1m x 2m with newly released Dijon clones on phylloxera-resistant rootstock. Traditionally, all that had been planted was Pommard and Wadenswil on wider spacing, so it is difficult to compare wine quality from these traditional wider spacings with the newer, denser plantings—it’s apples and oranges.” Lemon says the evidence in favor of Archery Summit’s close spacing is conclusive, “Since we began Archery Summit, the vineyards have been harvested at the highest ripeness levels at least a week before most people in the Red Hills of Dundee who have wider spacing.”