When we think of vineyards we most likely think of autumn and the harvesting of grapes, the making of the wine. That is the busiest time of year for both the vineyard and the winery, but it’s just the culmination. Take winter time in the vineyard. It’s possibly the most important time of year.
Shhh, they are sleeping
Winter is when the vines go dormant, go to sleep if you will, conserving energy for the next production of grapes. This is the time when viticulturists come in and prune back the vines.
They wait in the wings for the first frost of winter and from that moment on until early spring you will find them busy getting vines ready for the next years harvest.
What you do today…
Pruning is probably the most important thing one does in a vineyard as it impacts on your harvest directly. You see, the pruning you do this winter affects successive years, so not just next year, but the years after. So, yup, it’s important.
Think Bonsai tree and getting it to grow the way you want it to means clipping little bits off each year, training it to become the shape you want, that’s what it is like pruning a vine – you want it to grow the way you wish to give you the best fruit for the next year and its future.
The state of vines can really vary. The vines we looked after were a real mess. They hadn’t been pruned properly in years, maybe not ever, from the looks of them. The roots angled over and canes (e.g. a branch) were all over the place, going which ever way.
Ideally what you want is a nice straight ‘trunk’ that would then have a ‘branch’ (or two, depending on method) extending sideways, along a wire, from which additional branches will extend, the ones bearing the grapes. It’s about working the vines into as close a proximity of the ideal as possible, knowing it make take years to actual achieve this.
How to Prune
So how do you prune a vine? If you are us, and doing it by hand, we use vine pruning clippers. It you have money and/or a big vineyard you ideally use powered clippers, much, much faster.
You are essentially cutting away last years growth and deciding what will grow for this next harvest. Grapes won’t grow on old canes (branches) so you have to cut most of those away in readiness for new canes to come through.
A lot of our vines didn’t even have a cordon (that bit that goes along the wire and the canes grow up from), so in some cases we kept canes to train up to become cordons.
Confused? Look at your hand – your arm is the trunk of the vine, your palm is the cordon and your fingers the canes. The only difference is you want the cordon to be long (not palm size), as this is the part you want to extend along a wire (for support), so you can have a number of canes spaced out, giving you more canes and more room for the grapes.
You then use a tying-down tool, which essentially twists a thin wire and then cuts it all in one movement, to attach the cordon to the horizontal wire. The wire gives it support for the coming growing season, as well as trains your vine where you want it to go.
Ideally you want your cordons to go all in one direction. Of course ours didn’t. Ours were higgeldy-piggeldy, some going left, others going right. We decided to tie down a cordon, but also grow a spare if needed, giving us the opportunity in future to have our cordons all going the same way.
We also had an issue with the horizontal wires. Usually there are posts about every 2 metres or so. These will have a lower wire fastened to the post, through a U shaped nail, and then 2 wires above on either side of the post. These two additional wires can be raised up as the vines start to grow up, keeping the canes upright.
Our first priority was getting the lower wire (the one the cordon gets attached to) at the correct height. Too many of the wires were too low. Pumpjack duly made a highly technical stick with tape on it for the correct height. I would hold the stick up to the post and move the wire up to the correct height, putting in a nail to hold it in place.
It’s all in the Soil
The third big job is the soil. Normally, at least in Burgundy, when the vines are pruned you then plough the soil in between the vines, to aerate, but also to mound the soil around the trunk of the vine to help protect them.
Our vineyard suffered from poor drainage. All along we had been told that the vines at the bottom of the hill were dying because of drainage, poor drainage, too much drainage… No one was really sure, it just seemed to be a problem.
Watch and Learn
However by monitoring we soon discovered the drainage issue was at the top of the vineyard. There was definitely water coming from somewhere. We suspected a broken water pipe from one of the neighbours, but, as this was not something we could fix, particularly not right away, other measures had to be found.
The primary solution was to dig drainage ditches between the vines to drain off the excess water. This worked well, the only trouble was the soil was like clay, slippery and heavy, very heavy. More hours, more back breaking work, but we were able to see immediate results as the ditches filled with water and drained off. Not perfect, but we were starting to see results.
It was actually quite fun work spending those short winter days doing something productive, albeit freezing whilst doing it. Oh, and completely back breaking. Vines are about thigh height, so it means bending over throughout, or kneeling down at each vine.
But the bonus? The vineyard was starting to look more like a proper vineyard, even in dead of winter.
Here’s a great video by Wines of Burgundy showing technical details (along with lovely videography) on managing vines if you wish to know more.