In the late 1970s and early ’80s, a handful of Piedmont’s top producers like Elio Altare and Michele Chiarlo started to eliminate grape bunches, known as crop thinning or green harvesting. It was a practice already employed in top French appellations to lower yields and improve quality.
Locals thought these trailblazers were crazy. Seeing clusters of perfectly good grapes on the ground, growers with vineyards near Chiarlo even asked the parish priest to intervene to stop what they saw as sacrilege.
Fast-forward to today’s warmer, drier growing conditions, and this now-commonplace practice has contributed to naturally higher alcohol levels and lowered fresh acidity. It’s time to rethink things. The idea behind the method is that fewer bunches per vine allow for better grape ripening, which generates more concentrated wines and higher alcohol levels. Thirty years ago—a period with colder, wetter growing seasons and vineyards focused on quantity over quality—crop thinning made sense.
Thirty years ago—a period with colder, wetter growing seasons and vineyards focused on quantity over quality—crop thinning made sense.
By the late 1990s, producers across Italy replanted in selected sites at higher densities and with newer clones. They also switched over to better training systems and pruning methods. These measures were designed to lower yields, fight disease and encourage ripening.
Then came climate change. Hotter, drier growing seasons have increased alcohol levels and lowered acidity around the world. In Piedmont, it’s not uncommon to see Barolo and Barbaresco with 15% alcohol by volume (abv), while 15.5% is no longer unheard of for Barbera d’Asti.
In Montalcino, Tuscany, where Brunello producers used to have difficulty reaching 13% abv, most now admit that keeping wines under 15% is a challenge. And in Collio, in the northeast, white wines at 14.5% abv are now commonplace.
As alcohol levels rise and acidity plummets, consumer tastes have swung in the other direction. Most people now prefer elegant wines with tension, but without excessive alcohol. Cluster thinning needs to be reassessed.
Some argue that alcohol levels don’t matter if wines have enough fruit. Yet, it’s hard to find high-alcohol wines that boast balance, vibrancy and complexity, or that are food friendly. Lower acidity also puts a wine’s longevity at risk.
Although producers are sharply divided over the issue, I stand by those who are pulling back on crop thinning to focus on quality wines that boast freshness, finesse and balance.
Published: March 14, 2019