I’ve been pruning my vines. Now back indoors out of the cold I am warming up in front of my computer with a steaming cup of coffee to hand. “The pruning of the vine is the principal operation and the foundation of its cultivation,” wrote Armand d’Armailhacq in 1867 (1). His family founded the classed growth Bordeaux winery that bears his name and is now owned by the Rothschild’s. “Only by pruning judiciously can we obtain the desired quality and quantity of grapes,” said Abraham Perold in his magisterial Treatise on Viticulture in 1925, who added that “an increase in the grape crop usually means a decrease in the quality.”(2).
A grape vine grows prolifically, throwing out long canes with tendrils that wrap around supports. During the summer one can almost see the canes inching forward, so fast do the canes spread. Vines in the wild grow up and smother trees, spreading out, rooting themselves in the soil when canes touch ground.
So those neat rows of vines that you see in the fields when you visit wineries are not natural but the result of considerable management.
Quality grapes come from a newly grown cane. The pruner’s skilled job each winter is to cut back all that year’s growth to leave just one bud at the base of the cane. It is from that bud, a small bump on the cane, that a new cane will grow in spring, and that new cane will bear the grapes to be harvested later in the year.
I have been bent over my small vineyard – of seven vines – identifying the lowest bud and making a cut above it. Then untangling tendrils from the unwanted cane from wires, fences and in one place an overhanging tree.
I now have a row of bare vines, each trunk with two horizontal arms on which are the pruned stubs that will grow this summer’s new grape bearing vines.
What the crop will be like is mostly decided because we will be reaping the benefit of the previous year’s growing conditions as stored in the vine. By pruning we remove canes that will not produce fruit, reduce the amount of growth the roots have to feed and limit the amount of grapes produced.
Less is definitely more when growing wine grapes, knowledge passed down the millennia and mentioned in the Bible – “Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit”. John 15:2 (3).
- A d’Armailhacq: De la Culture des vignes dans le Medoc, 3rd ed. Bordeaux 1867.
- A I Perold: A Treatise on Viticulture, 1925, Reprinted 2012, ISBN 978-0-9561523-2-9
- English Standard Version Bible - www.esv.org
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Peter F May is the author of Marilyn Merlot and the Naked Grape: Odd Wines from Around the World which features more than 100 wine labels and the stories behind them, and PINOTAGE: Behind the Legends of South Africa’s Own Wine which tells the story behind the Pinotage wine and grape, also available for the Kindle.