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30/03/2024 // Sophie Purkischarters

Winter Pruning – a Mammoth Task

What is winter pruning?

Throughout the winter months the vineyard is grey and lifeless. The trees and hedgerows are bare, as are the vines; with harvest long since over and the grapes safely taken in, the sap has retreated into the roots to protect the vine from the coming cold, and the leaves have all but disappeared by early December. After the harvest period, any energy from the vine’s sources is redirected towards the vine’s carbohydrate storage organs – not only the roots but also any old wood, such as the trunk or permanent arms of the vine. This is the energy that will allow the vine to produce new green tissue in the following year, before it has any sustained photosynthetic activity to keep it going.

At the vineyard, we are able to take stock of the year that has gone by and the one that is to follow, and prepare ourselves for the new year’s tasks. The first of these – in chronology and, arguably, in importance – is pruning.

In order to achieve this, we must reduce the number of buds on the vine. There are many styles of pruning which all have a different approach to bud number control. One of the main styles used in this country is guyot, or cane pruning. For this technique, we have to choose a new cane every year from the shoots that have grown during the year, cutting everything else off. We then lay this down along the fruiting wire; during the season, the new fruit-bearing shoots will grow vertically from this cane. At Saffron Grange, we leave a second insurance cane in case of frost, as well as one or two spurs with two buds each which will give us more options for pruning in the year to follow. Pruning is not just about producing a good crop for the next year: it is about ensuring the continuity of the pruning process far into the future, and prolonging the life of the vine.

In the wild, vines would be structured very differently, climbing up trees until they reach the sunlight, and only then producing fruit. This is why I like to think of my job as that of a shepherd, looking after a flock of vines. We are not simply reaping the fruit of a wild bush, which magically produces exactly what we require. We are tending to living organisms which, left to their own devices, would have a very different behaviour and would yield very different results. Pruning is one of the most important tasks of the year, as it sets the vines – and the business – up for success when carried out with thought and care.

Because so much of the vine’s energy has gone into the ripe fruit that we have harvested (and this is especially true in a bumper year such as 2023), it only has so much energy left in its sources for the start of next season. Left unregulated, the vine will distribute this energy among each of its buds. The effect of this is that the energy, or vigour, that goes into each bud will be less, and that it will put more energy into its shoots than its fruit. Vines are a type of liana and so concentrate a little more energy into apical growth (creeping) than elsewhere. As we tend vines for the grapes that they produce, we vineyard workers would rather each bunch grow on a strong shoot, which will allow the bunch to develop and ripen correctly, and that the energy go equally to the shoots and the bunches, producing a balanced vine which will not only produce fruit for this year, but sustain the vine for many years to come.

When do you do it?

At Saffron Grange, winter pruning is carried out between January and the end of March. This gives the vines enough time to go into dormancy, and crucially it avoids the month of December, which has a higher trunk disease risk. Pruning creates wounds in the vines which are vulnerable to infection by a variety of fungal pathogens; these can cause trunk diseases which de-vigourate the vines and can eventually cause their death. We avoid pruning in the rain as this favours the fungi, so the ideal time for us to prune is on a clear winter’s day!

What are the challenges? Have there been any new challenges this year?

The main challenge that we face is getting all of the pruning done on time. With about 16,000 vines to prune, all in the space of three months, we have to set a pretty fast pace. When the weather’s on our side, that’s fine; but when we get a rainy week, we can’t make any progress at all. We might have to make compromises, such as using dry weather to make our pruning cuts and leaving the pruning wood to be removed when it’s raining, as the latter job is not weather-dependent. Ideally we try to get all of our pruning done well before budburst, as the buds get progressively more swollen and more fragile the closer we get to this date – which could be any time from the end of March to mid April. There are usually only one or two of us pruning at a time, but during crunch times when we need to get a lot done there might be more. There are many other things happening around the estate at this time of year to drag us away from pruning – such as managing hedgerows, fixing fences, or moving our resident sheep from one parcel to another – so good time-management is of the essence!

How does it differ here at Saffron Grange to other vineyards you have worked at?

This is all a little different from the way things were done where I worked in Burgundy. Pruning over there was a four-month-long job, which took place from the beginning of November to the very end of February due to the scale of the vineyard. For those four months, pruning was practically the only task we completed, and would be carried out come rain or shine. Pruning and removing the pruning wood would necessarily be separate tasks, as we used to burn the prunings, going down the rows with wheelbarrows made out of old disused oil drums and stoking the fires as we went. While the images of people burning vine wood in this way hark back to older times and may seem quite romantic, it was a hard job; besides which it was incredibly polluting. At Saffron Grange, we remove the prunings from the vineyard in a trailer to prevent the risk of retaining any disease. We then chip the pruning wood down and compost it, thus recycling the valuable organic matter.

 

What do you like and dislike about the task?

Pruning is my favourite vineyard task – with the exception of harvesting – because it is the one that most combines the physical and the mental aspect of working on a vineyard. Each vine is different; although there are methodologies out there which do an excellent job of explaining the theory behind it all, the ideal vine is a rare find indeed, in practice. Ultimately it is an exercise in problem solving, trying to follow the rules as much as possible but also knowing when and where to throw them out of the window. Although it can be frustrating, it’s also what makes the job fun. Good pruning requires a balance between perfectionism and pragmatism, curiosity and decisiveness. It is the job where you get to spend the most time with each vine and truly understand the plant, how sap flows through it and how to nurture it to produce optimal fruit.