Lowering yields: manipulation or not?

I was at a Barolo dinner last Friday where the importer related an anecdote about Elio Altare. He was apparently interested in reducing yields by dropping fruit. This enraged his father, and he was essentially disinherited at that point (though obviously things later turned around for him.) Reducing yields is commonly accepted as a quality-enhancing viticultural technique at this point, but not too long ago it was controversial. Few would describe this as a manipulation, but it’s clear that it has a big impact on the modern style of wine (concentrated, ripely fruited).

Maybe a good question would be, can a producer who lowers yields be traditional? Since lowering yields is a more recent phenomena (or is it?), it seems that few if any producers would be making wines like they were 40 years ago, except when in older vintages the weather supported a larger crop load of ripe, concentrated fruit. Even in a hand-off style of production, I think we’d be looking at a different fruit character. Basically a traditional technique/modern fruit juxtaposition.

Were there any producers/regions intentionally lowering yields pre-1970? Or is this entirely a new movement? Can producers who strictly control yields (or screen harvested fruit rigorously) be “traditional” in the sense they are using a long-accepted, older technique?

Any act involving growing grapes or making wine is a form of manipulation.

Ive seen a number of references throughout history where its clear that people recongnized that you had to choose between making lots of wine or making good wine. Perhaps they were not dropping fruit but they recognized that avoiding high yeilds was important to quality.

Growers in the past used dense planting which would reduce yields. Also another way of manipulating yields was massal selection in which Vines that had the smallest berries were singled and used for replanting of the vineyards.

Not sure that this is the case. I have read a few papers that appear to indicate that simply reducing yield may not improve quality and could impact it for the worse. I don’t have them with me but will see if I can find them at home tonight and list references.

Common question: Does manipulation matter at all if you find the product that you are putting in your mouth more pleasurable than you otherwise would?

Well it does matter to me because I like the flavors of less manipulated wines.

I’m not sure there were any producers doing this pre-1970, but there were other techniques, intentional or not, to reduce yields: vines density; massal selection; terroir selection; old vines; boars and other animals; sorting; botrytis; ice; grapes “bursting” (e.g. muscat); etc.

Getting rid of perfectly healthy fruit in order to reduce yield/increase concentration is definitely a manipulation in my view.

The main issue here is that there is, for whatever reason, a positive correlation between low yield and quality, which doesn’t necessarily translate to the glass. Many regions produce wines at yields (e.g. 50-60 hl/ha, not sure how to translate in tons per acre) that other regions, or some producers, would find unacceptably high. However I’m not at all convinced that the wines produced would be better at 40 hl/ha or 20 hl/ha.

Especially in the case of very low yields (say 15 hl/ha and below), I don’t mind if it happens for external reasons (typically old vines or boars) but I’m always a bit wary if the producer is proud of reaching such low yields by other means, as, again, the link to improved quality is dubious.

One needs to define how reduced yields is to be measured. If one is talking pounds per plant then yes, high density planting can reduce yields (but not always). However, if one is talking per linear foot of trellis or per acre, then high density planting may not show any reduction in yield.

If lowering yields is considered manipulation, lots of luck finding an “unmanipulated” wine!

Guillaume points out several methods of reducing yields that likely pre-date this pre-1970 standard. When I explain to novices about our practices of controlling yield, the first yield-controlling action I talk about is the annual pruning of the vines during the winter. That’s right, we (and almost everyone else on Earth that grows grapevines) cut off an enormous percentage of the canes that grew the previous growing season. That sets the potential for the approaching growing season and is far less that if the vines were allowed to grow and grow. Have we taken the idea of unmanipulated so far that pruning falls under that category?

In Oregon, many find a definite correlation between yield and quality. This may be less true of other growing regions. There is a point of diminishing returns when reducing crop sizes.

Peter Rosback

Not to hijack this, Berry . . . . but how would you know if the wines have been more or less manipulated? Doesn’t this first off have to do with first defining ‘manipulation’ in a way that most agree? Then, doesn’t it have to do with the honesty of the winery/winemaker? Just wondering . . .


Are you insinuating that winemakers are big liars and we shouldn’t trust them?

I think most people know what “less” means and everything someone does to grow or make wine is a manipulation so I don’t see how there could be any confusion there.

Exactly - and this is the reason for a lot of people’s ambivalence towards green harvesting. A vineyard harvested after a green harvest might have exactly the same yield as a vineyard planted at two times the density without green harvesting, or a vineyard with low-yielding, 100-year old vines - but that doesn’t mean that each method of arriving at that yield is going to have the same effect on the fruit. Green harvesting became popular in some regions after some wine writers made a mantra of “Low yields! Low yields!” I guess if your goal is to be influential, it’s more productive to prescribe low yields than old vines. There ain’t much people can do to pull off the latter other than sit and wait.

dropping fruit is not the only way to reduce yield. Another, safer way would be to reduce fertilization over time -especially Ammonium sulfate additions and even plants and legumes that promote bacterial nitrogen fixation as well as soil management techniques. Some might argue that higher yields achieved by means of ‘natural’ or artificial fertilization are much more of a manipulation of the characteristics of a vineyard site and hence a manipulation of terroir. Artificial fertilizer (and irrigation) promotes laziness of the root system of a vine in that the vine is not required to search out nutrients and water by itself. Farming is full of difficult decisions that ultimately influence the flavor and characteristics of any plant. Trying to seek a ‘more’ natural balance in regard to yield is arguably the best way to express individuality in a vineyard site. Of course, there are minimal nutritional and hydration needs that need to be addressed otherwise you aren’t going to have healthy vines and good wine. All of this is why any discussion of Terroir would be incomplete without mention of the Farmer.



As with everything else in life, sometimes things are not as they seem - and yes, I do believe that wineries are ‘guilty’ of not being completely forthright in how they make their wines at times. Whether statements like ‘we do not filter our wines’ yet they do when ‘needed’ or ‘we only use native yeasts’ but add commercial ones ‘when needed’ would be considered ‘lies’ or not really depends upon how you want to look at it.

And I can remember many a thread that dealt with ‘manipulation’ and there seemed to be a plethora of concepts as to where ‘manipulation’ begins and what is covered by the term.

Just having fun this morning, my friend . . . carry on.

Someone above mentioned pruning as a manipulation to control yields, and I would agree. Limiting the number of spurs per cordon is one of the simplest ways to control yields, and it is done regularly as part of the farming process. Now you can go further and limit the fruit once it is produced on the vine. I’m not sure if one type of manipulation is more “valid” than the other.

Without getting into the 'what’s manipulation and how do you know" argument for the 5034th time…

Elio’s father wasn’t outraged because he objected to manipulation in the way we mean that. He was outraged because throughout his lifetime grapes in Piedmont were primarily sold in bulk effectively as a common agricultural product, not as a premium estate made product. Cutting yields meant less money for the family business in his father’s eyes and was a repudiation of what they’d done for decades. Remember, that area of Italy was POOR in the first part of this century. The idea of wines from Barolo being considered as among the best in the world is fairly recent - think the '70s. I’m not saying no one made estate wines before this - they did. And it might have been different in the 18th or 19th centuries, but in the 20th, many producers viewed grapes as just another crop.

If they are adding the caveat that they do when needed then they are not lieing.

Since wild Vitis vinifera subsp. silvestris doesn’t turn itself into wine by definition EVERYTHING is a manipulation.

These threads always make me chuckle.

Personally, I think picking the grapes is unnatural manipulation by the hand of man. I think winemakers should just put buckets under the vines and work with whatever falls of its own accord.

These threads always make me chuckle.

  • 1… [cheers.gif]. That being sid…I love to read everyone’s thoughts - so please continue the discussion.

Jasper Morris new Inside Burgundy…talks about : yield; and I love what he had said flirtysmile

The “I like flavors from less manipulated wines” argument is lost on me. You like flavors. Certain wines have those flavors. Some are not so heavily manipulated. Surely others are. It’s like classicists in Napa arguing for more structured, lower alcohol, less “spoofulated” wines like Dunn…which are spoofulated to kingdom come. We can all rationalize that the wines we like most are inherently made in the most appropriate way. There are countless biodynamic wines that I absolutely love. Is biodynamism hard core spoofulation? Certainly it must be. But to me, so is the use of oak, cement, stainless steel, cold soaks, extended macerations, etc., etc.

Every step of the winemaking process requires a decision. Each decision changes the outcome of the final product, and is therefore a “manipulation.” Arguing for wines with fewer manipulations is a non-starter to me, simply because every wine is loaded with manipulations, from vine to vinification. If you blind through a thousand wines and consistently like one style of manipulation, great. More power to you. If you are indifferent, more power to you. But the main question in this thread is about whether or not lowering yields constitutes a manipulation. Of course it does.

So Berry, since you made the broad generalization of liking wines with fewer manipulations, are you against doing anything to lower yields? Or is not lowering yields also a manipulation. How do you end up with a just-barely-manipulated wine? Do those wines include stems? Do they use any oak? Is acid added at any point? Are commercial yeasts ever added? What if its a newer winery without wild yeasts? Is that a non-starter? Should you ever irrigate? What do you plant in between rows? Are those constants in the wines you like? Have you ever been at a blind tasting and realized you were getting pleasure from a wine you later found to be heavily manipulated? Have you dated Alice Fearing, who manipulated her own “natural” wines to ensure she didn’t produce liquid terds. Do you think the vast majority of winemakers don’t do the exact same thing? Do you think winemakers usually disclose their manipulations? Didn’t you tell me that you saw an invoice from a really respected winery for grape concentrate once? One that we wouldn’t expect?