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Winter pruning: our tips and tricks

Winter pruning in an English vineyard

It’s all about balance

By Jake Wicks – Vineyard Manager

Winter pruning is the single most important job in the vineyard calendar and one that I look forward to every year, albeit with some trepidation. It’s the first task in the growing season that will shape this year’s harvest. With over 13 hectares of established vines to individually prune and tie down, there’s plenty to keep us going during the cold winter months. Here are some of our most trusted tips and tricks for tackling this crucial stage.

winter pruning technique English vineyard

1.Art of pruning

When it comes to pruning vines, our main goal is to achieve the ideal balance between vigour and productivity. We want each vine to produce a quality, healthy, fruitful crop but without using too much energy as this could be detrimental to next year’s growing season. So, first of all, we must carefully select the number of buds to leave on each vine. If we under-prune (i.e. leave too many buds) the vines will produce spindly shoots and struggle to fully ripen the fruit. Whereas, if we over-prune (i.e. don’t leave enough buds), the vines will produce very thick overly-vigorous shoots, making pruning extremely challenging in the following year. But most important of all, the vine won’t reach its full yield potential and there’ll be less wine for us all to enjoy!

2. Assessing vigour

Before our snips have even touched the vine, we must assess its overall vigour as this will help determine the correct number of buds to leave. I’ve experimented with many different methods during my time spent working in vineyards around the world and always found ‘Charge Counts’ to be the most reliable. This method involves counting the number of shoots that have grown during the previous season. Shoots of pencil thickness are awarded a charge of one. Shoots thicker than this are given a charge of 1.5 and smaller than this have no charge at all.

Winter pruning charge count

For example – a vine with 18 shoots of pencil thickness will have a charge of 18 and therefore, we would retain 18 buds on the vine (see image above). After a while this becomes second nature and it’s easy to spot a vine a mile off that has a charge count of 10, 16 or even 23. Once you’ve decided how many buds to retain, you’ve then got to decide on the training system.

3. Single or Double?

Like many vineyards in England that are growing grapes destined for sparkling wines, we follow the Guyot Method, which is widely used by growers in Champagne and around the world. This is a head-trained system with a permanent trunk and selected canes and spurs. As a general rule, for 12 buds or less you would train to Single Guyot (one cane, one spur) and for 13-26 buds you would adopt Double Guyot (two canes, two spurs). The canes are chosen first followed by the spurs which should always sit below the canes and generally have two buds. Spurs are vitally important as they will form next year’s canes.

Winter pruning in an English Vineyard

4. Pulling out

Once the canes and spurs have been pruned to their required bud counts, the surplus wood needs to be removed from the foliage wires. This is done by hand – a technique commonly referred to as “pulling out.” As much as 90% of the vine will be removed and where possible the prunings are mulched into the soil to return key nutrients to the land. It is only in exceptional years, where disease has been detected, that we would burn the prunings.

5. Tying down

Tying down the selected canes comes as a welcome relief after the physical exertion of pulling out. All the canes are carefully tied down with a biodegradable paper tie onto the horizontal fruiting wire ensuring that the buds don’t get damaged in the process. It certainly helps to have swift, nimble fingers!

At some of our more vigorous sites, we’ll have two fruiting wires and create a gentle arch curving the vine across both wires, commonly known as the ‘Pendelbogen’ technique. The greatest benefit of this technique is that we can fit more buds into a given space. It also encourages an even budbreak and balanced growth along the cane. Each bud retained on the cane has the potential to produce a fruit bearing shoot which will grow vertically during the season. As this happens, we will use adjustable foliage wires and biodegradable clips to support the growth.

Pendelbogen Technique English Vineyard

Once the vines have been pruned and tied down, we will be nervously waiting for the nail-biting stage of budburst to begin and hoping and praying that we will escape a visit from Jack Frost!

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