27/01/2021 // Dan Turner
As the saying goes ‘every winter has its Spring’, but before Spring arrives at Saffron Grange, there is one very important vineyard job to be done: winter pruning.
As any gardener will know, pruning helps ensure a plant produces its best crop. Vines are no different. Left to their own devices, our vines would keep growing rampantly, but that growth would come at the expense of the quality in the grapes they produce. The reason? Grapes achieve the best wine-making potential when grown on young wood. That’s why each year we prune back the vines to remove most of the last season’s growth, which keeps them more compact and encourages new shoots to emerge and bear the bulk of the next season’s fruit.
It’s hard to overstate how critical this job is. Done well, winter pruning sets the vines up for a good year ahead and to a large extent this one job determines the quality of that year’s vintage.
The Gentle Pruning method
At Saffron Grange, we follow the ‘Gentle Pruning’ method, developed by acclaimed Italian vineyard consultants Simonit&Sirch. The Gentle Method is a meticulous, hand-cutting technique which uses secateurs for precision. It promotes the natural ability of the vine to branch in a way that ensures a healthier and longer life.
Why do we like it? Well, imagine the vines are like motorways, but for sap. Each time you make a cut during pruning, you create dead wood, which act as a roadblock for the sap and create blockages. Our pruning method reduces these blockages by minimising the amount of bulbous dead ends, and consequently improves the flow of sap around the vine, as well as the overall quality of the resulting grapes.
Pruning takes place during the coldest months of the year when the vines are dormant. Rising sap can easily be wasted during pruning, but the cold weather minimises this by drying the vines out more quickly – also helping to reduce the risk of fungal disease.
Hedging our bets in the frost pocket
Whilst we prune the majority of our vineyard using the Gentle Method, there is one area where we take a different approach. The Eastern Lower section – where we grow our Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes – is more frost prone in cold weather. This is because the cold air flows down our gently sloping hills and is thus more at risk of frost to damage the sensitive buds.
That’s why we allow the vines to grow more naturally here. We still control the growth using a mechanical vine pruner, but the vines are allowed to develop into a hedge-like appearance. We grow more buds per vine this way, which essentially allows us to hedge our bets in the event of frost damage. If a bad frost occurs after bud burst, we accept the loss of those buds, and simply cut back the damaged vines to encourage our reserve buds to grow in their place, however less fruitfully.
This method creates more work – such as canopy management and leaf pruning – but it’s a worthwhile trade-off and gives us an essential safety-net in those frost-prone years.
The importance of good vine hygiene
During the pruning, our team is highly trained to spot the first symptoms of disease in the vines. Vine disease transmits on contact, so we are meticulous about cleaning our equipment when pruning.
Sometimes vines can be damaged, but it doesn’t necessarily mean all is lost. During the winter pruning, we also cut out damaged or dead wood to revitalise the vine. This sometimes means cutting the vine right down to the root base and regrowing the trunk almost from scratch.
Once the pruning has been done, the next few weeks see us complete the ‘pulling through’ process. This is where we vigorously remove the pruned canes from the trellis wires – often painstakingly untangling the strong tendrils.
The offcuts from the vines are analysed for any disease and all the healthy cuttings are shredded down and sprinkled all over the vineyard. This last step in the winter pruning process plays a key part in our vineyard’s ecosystem, ensuring that all the nutrients go back into the soil to support future vines.