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November 9, 2021 | Elden Selections

Low Yield Wines

When thinking of harvests, it’s often easy to associate large yields with good years, and therefore great wines. But it doesn’t really work like that. Indeed, many believe that the best producers tend to have smaller yields, and there are many fine examples of this in Burgundy. As with everything to do with Burgundy wine, there are no hard and fast rules—you have to know and trust the winemaker, and appreciate that a wine is a multifaceted wonder, the product of many different factors. So what do we mean by ‘low yield’, and why might it be low? And what characteristics can a low yield give a wine? 

There may be many reasons for having fewer grapes to harvest and make wine from. Some are ‘natural’ i.e. there was frost, hail, or millerandage (unequal size and maturity of grape bunches). In recent years, Mother Nature has played a large part in some of these small crops; our latest harvests have all been low yields, except for 2018. Old vines also naturally produce fewer grapes and lower yields, but go on to produce more concentrated (and usually more sought-after) wines.

Sometimes, however, the low yield is intentional, caused by the actions of the vigneron. For example, a process known as a ‘green harvest’, which is where the winemaker deliberately removes ‘extra’ grape bunches from the vine, thinning out the crop and helping to encourage the remaining grapes to ripen successfully and with a greater concentration of flavor. Severe pruning and thinning of the grapes can have a similar effect, but it must be done with care and the results are never guaranteed. Chardonnay is known to be a ‘big cropper’—rampant, even— whose vines produce large amounts of grapes and so this type of control may be needed here in particular. 

In general, a smaller yield will lead to a better wine for the consumer, in terms of aroma, taste and overall quality. But with less wine to sell, this can present challenges for the winemaker. A lot of negociant houses and winemakers making large quantities will actually have a re-planting schedule to remove vines as they age, because small yields from old vines become less economically viable for them. Therefore, wherever we find them, we should acknowledge and appreciate those vignerons who take the financial hit and hold onto the low-yield aged vines ('vieilles vignes') for quality reasons. 

The INAO (the organisation in France responsible for regulating agricultural products including wine) has upper limits on yields, but generally these are too high for top-quality wine, so the best producers do what they can to keep yields low. Famously this was producers like Leroy, at first; now many others have followed. Naturally, the regional 'Bourgogne' is allowed the higher yield, however, even in 2018 (the last year with a big yield in Burgundy) their Bourgogne was much lower that the allowed limit for a Grand Cru, for example.

Elden Selections works with a number of tried and trusted small producers who place the quality of their wine and their reputation above simple quantity and monetary reward. In particular, if you want to try world-beating, naturally low-yield wines from old vines, look out for these:

  • Domaine Germain Saint Romain Blanc: The Domaine began in 1955 with vineyards situated uniquely in Saint Romain, and this bottle is full, rich and dense, with elegant floral notes. Some of their vines are 45 years old.
  • Domaine Germain Saint Romain Rouge Sous le Château: Another superb Saint Romain wine, this time made from vines which are up to 53 years old. Full, juicy fruit explodes with youthful acidity—but then comes a structure which tells you that you’ll want to save a few bottles of this for the future.
  • Domaine Albert Boillot Bourgogne Rouge: a winemaker of some 40 harvests, Raymond Boillot of Volnay is part of the greater Boillot family, and some of his vines are 60 years old. 
  • Domaine Élodie Roy Santenay 1er Cru Gravières’: at 38, Elodie took over the family domain, with 24 acres of old vines in good condition, including a parcel of 70-year-old vines that were planted by her grandfather in 1952. This 1er cru wine is fleshy, elegant and muscular—a deep and concentrated wine as you’d expect from old, low yield vines. 
  • Marchand Frères Chambolle-Musigny Vieilles Vignes: The Domaine Marchand Frères has been in existence since 1813 through seven generations, so you won’t be surprised to learn that vines are old and yields low. They give this wine character, personality, and a structure solid enough to age.  
  • Marchand-Frères Morey-St-Denis Vieilles Vignes: Another old classic from this producer—deep purple with hint of new oak, a classy village old-vine Morey.
  • Domaine Joliet Fixin 1er Cru Clos de la perrière Wine has been made in Fixin since 1142, when the Cistercian monks knew they were onto a good thing with the Clos de la Perriere vineyard. Winemaker Benigne Joliet separates out all the young vines from his various parcels of vines for a separate wine, but this one is complex and seductive, long and exciting.
  • Domaine Jean Dauvissat Chablis 1er Cru Montmains: made from vines planted in 1954 & 1968, but by reducing the volume of wine produced on the domain in his father’s days to the levels he targets now, Fabian Dauvissat has made himself a considerable reputation. His Chablis comes from a very rocky soil which gives a very pronounced minerality with extraordinary power and good aging potential.
  • Domaine Rebourgeon:  this producer makes wines with incredibly low yields, much less than the requirement of the Grand Cru, for example. His excellent Bourgogne Blanc, for example, is from a tiny plot measuring less than half an acre. 

We wish you many happy hours sampling these wines, but always bear in mind that the term 'vieilles vignes' or ‘old vine’ is unregulated—there is no minimum age—so make sure the winemaker is one to trust.... such as an Elden Selections Winemaker!

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