Before I ever stepped a working foot into the vineyards, I honestly had no idea that there was so much to do all year round. I guess I just figured that a grapevine was similar to an apple tree. It grows the fruit, you harvest it, done. Pfffft, who needs school?
Well, it turns out I was wrong about both.
Though an apple orchard may not require as much training and care as a top-site vineyard, the trees do still benefit from pruning – just like a vine does.
Pruning is done during the cold winter months while the plants are dormant. The purpose is to increase the amount of 1 year old wood on each vine and cut off as much of the old wood as possible. Since fruit is only produced on the shoots of 1 year old wood (canes), anything older will only produce leaves and grape-less shoots. By cutting back as much old wood as possible a winemaker is able to increase new growth in the spring.
But it’s not all about quantity. In fact, quality focused winemakers are very careful about controlling a certain yield (amount of grapes grown in a certain area). This is because vines that produce too many grape clusters become exhausted and aren’t able to properly nourish them all. Baby-mama gotta be able to feed her kids, know what I’m sayin’? So the lower the amount of grapes, the higher their aromatic concentration will be, which increases the potential to make great wine.
That’s also why old vines produce more concentrated fruit. Since their output is less than that of younger vines, and because they have deeper root systems, the little bit of fruit they produce is generally higher in concentration and flavour.
Why is it important to prune while the vines are dormant?
Pruning too early can stimulate new growth, which likely won’t harden up in-time for the cold weather. By late winter the vines are in full chill-out mode and not a lot goes on within them. Other than a bit of root growth (if the soil temperature isn’t too low) the vine is basically just hibernating until spring. The roots will have taken up enough nutrients post-harvest to store as energy and use to develop shoots when spring arrives.
Vines aren’t the only thing in a vineyard that are dormant in the late winter months. So are most diseases and insects that could otherwise invade or infest cuts made in the wood during pruning.
It’s also just a lot easier to see what you’re doing after the leaves have dropped!
There is one think about winter though, and that is that it tends to be rather chilly…
After a few months spending 7-8 hours a day outside in the freezing cold with just your thoughts and your sheers you may start to wonder how on earth you ever got to this point and why God, WHY!?
… just kidding 😉
Vineyard work is definitely physically demanding, especially on the steep slopes, but it’s good, hard, honest work and it can be really rewarding and rejuvenating – like a form of meditation. It deepened my appreciation for nature, my respect for sustainable farming and above all, my curiosity about where the products I consume really come from.
Sure, the cold can be a real bish, but you just have to bust out your best wool undies, download a good audiobook, try to keep all your bits covered, and always remember: your work will bring wine! Otherwise you won’t last more than a week. And this is coming from a Canadian, eh.