‘Taille tôt, taille tard. Rien ne vaut la taille de mars’ or so goes the perceived wisdom of French growers. ‘Prune early, prune late, nothing is better than pruning in March’ and thankfully, this year we managed to finish pruning on the 11th March, just before the Coronavirus restrictions began to be put in place.
Under normal circumstances, you can’t start pruning until the previous year’s leaves have fallen from the vines and ideally you need to finish the job before budburst in the following year, so it is essentially a winter/early spring activity in the vineyard. At Les Deux Cols, we like to prune as late as possible as it delays bud break which we find helps avoid problems of late spring frosts, which affected our area last week, and also decreases the risk of bunch shatter in our Grenache vines, caused by wet, cold conditions at flowering. The pruning window is probably about four to four and half months and the rule of thumb in our part of the Rhône Valley is one hectare, one person, one week. As Les Deux Cols owns eight hectares, that’s eight weeks pruning in theory. With three of us in venture, that should be a little over two and half weeks on paper. Of course, none of us was born into a wine making family and so whilst we are proud of our pruning skills, as yet we don’t have the speed to be hitting those kinds of targets. Try more like, one hectare, three people, three days…
Of course, there are other variables in how quickly a vineyard can be pruned, most notably, the planting density. Our parcels are planted at 4,000 vines per hectare but if we were in Bordeaux, Burgundy or Champagne, we could be looking at up to 10,000 vines whilst in some parts of Spain and Portugal that number could be as low as 650.
Equipment is another key variable – short handled, manual hand secateurs, long handled, manual secateurs, pneumatic or battery powered? Which brand would monsieur like? Felco, Infaco, Pellenc, Bahco, Go-Tech, Volpi, Zanon? €1,000 a pair for the electric or €75 for a good pair of manual ones with a rotating bottom handle to stop you getting tendonitis. You can work twice as fast with the battery powered models, but they aren’t as accurate as manual secateurs. To be honest, they also take a bit of getting used to when you first start as they’re quite scary, being capable of cutting off a misplaced finger, no bother. Their other disadvantage is that you are required to wear quite a heavy battery pack which is a bit tiresome by the end of a long day. Nor do you get to build up the massive muscles in your hand, forearm and bicep as you do when using the manual ones. If you don’t like a strong grip, never shake hands with someone who has manually pruned thousands of vines….
So why prune at all, if it’s so time consuming and expensive? Well, in reality, it is the key moment in the vineyard cycle. It is the time when we shape the vine, not only for the current year, but often for many years ahead. Essentially, we organise the plant on its trellising with the goal being to create the right balance between amount of leaves (the canopy) and the number of bunches, giving the optimum exposure of sun, sunlight and wind. This results in synchronised bunch ripening as well as reducing disease pressure by ensuring air can circulate easily within the canopy and between the bunches. It also allows us to achieve an appropriate bud number to give the best yield/quality ratio depending on each grower’s terroir, stylistic goals and commercial requirements.
The principal pruning techniques used in the production of winemaking grapes are the Guyot method (cane pruning) and the Cordon method (spur pruning). Today both methods are mainly done on trellising because of vineyard mechanisation but you frequently come across the Cordon method on free standing vines known as ‘gobelet’ or ‘bush trained’. With the Guyot method 90% of the previous year’s growth is removed leaving one, or two canes (in the case of a double Guyot) and one or two spurs, thus creating new fruiting arms every year. Each cane needs to be about 12-15 nodes long (those little bumps you can feel along a cane) – too long and the vine will put all its vigour into its extremities, resulting in uneven canopies. The Cordon method on the other hand employs permanent fruiting arms with spurs coming off those arms. We remove all the previous year’s growth and, in our case, leave the two fruiting arms with three spurs on each arm and two buds per spur.
Each system has its advantages and disadvantages but the aim in both cases is to leave the vine with the coming year’s growth positioned vertically. This aids with photosynthesis as well as making sure that workers and machinery can pass easily down the rows.
One of the most important things that has been understood of late with pruning is to have the canes or arms at the same height, or as close as possible, to the top of the trunk and not to leave large pruning wounds. The correct height allows the smooth flow of sap along the arms, aiding in the proper physiological functioning of the plant. If the sap paths are hindered due to irregular arm height or dried wood inside the arm from old pruning wounds, the plant will suffer premature exhaustion, limiting its vigour and production as well as resulting in a shorter life span. In addition, if there are gaping holes in the arms, caused by cutting back any unwanted wood too close to the arm, water and fungi can enter the plant causing disease from within. To counter this, when removing the previous year’s canes, we leave what is called a ‘cone dessèchement’ or a ‘drying zone’ each time we cut. This is means we don’t cut right down to the base but instead leave a little nub on the arm that dries out during the year and that can then be removed the following year once it has completely lignified (become woody).
Each parcel of vineyard needs to be approached differently and even within parcels there are zones where the pruning needs to be adapted. We have a vineyard where the soil at the top of parcel is stony and so much less vigorous than the bottom part, where clay predominates. At the top, the canes are even and average in size whereas at the bottom they are very thick and plentiful. To prune the vines in this fertile part of the vineyard in the same way as those at the top would be foolish as pruning doesn’t control vigour. In fact, if we cut the vine right back in the hope that it would be less vigorous, it would react in the opposite manner and will put even more effort into its growth, particularly more leaves. More shading depresses bud break and berry growth and because there’s less fruit, shoot growth is stimulated which leads to more leaves which leads to more shading…..aaaggghhh!!!! You get the picture. When faced with this problem, we need to turn to find solutions other than pruning such as planting grass or flowers in the row to counter the vigour.
The final act of the pruning months is the remove the cut shoots from the vineyard which we do by either mulching them which provides about 1.5 tons per hectare of humus or by burning canes affected by any fungal disease.
It’s tough, repetitive work but strangely satisfying with a pruned vineyard resembling someone with an unruly mop of hair emerging from the hairdresser/barber with a neat, trim cut. It also allows us to get to get to know every inch of our vineyards as you walk the entire length of them, studying each plant before starting to prune. Thankfully, the weather in the south of France is often very agreeable by March with the work being carried out under a blue Provençal sky and lunch being a BBQ over vine cuttings – perhaps accompanied by the odd glass of wine!