Vineyard Touches: Pruning

Vineyard Touches: Pruning

“A huge impact on wine quality is the quality and the character of the grapes received at the winery.”

That’s Cambria’s winemaker Denise Shurtleff’s way of expressing the traditional thought that “wine is made in the vineyard.”

That may be true, as far as it goes; but Mother Nature, by herself, could never make grapes suitable for world-class wine. Wine grapes, perhaps more than any other crop, require the diligent oversight of a farmer. This is why the science of grape growing is called viticulture—“viti” from the Latin word for “vine,” and “culture” from another Latin root meaning “to till the soil.” Nature doesn’t till soil; humans do. (This same root-word gives us the words cultivate and cultural, all implying human activities modifying natural processes.)

By the time of the Romans, in the first century A.D., the cultivation of grapes was well understood. They “were rather skilled in pruning,” say the great University of California, Davis scientists, Maynard Amerine and Vernon Singleton. In nineteenth century France, viticulture developed by leaps and bounds. Today, vineyard management is both an art and a science; science, because so much of grape growing is grounded in science (for example, countering mold), but art, because the human capacities for intuition and creativity come into play.

Vineyardists call their interventions on the vines by the crude but descriptive word “touches.” A simple term, “touches” implies all the activities by which vineyard crews lay their hands on grape vines, in order to bring about certain goals.

Vineyard Touches: Pruning

Pellenc tractor with attachment ‘pre-pruning’ last year’s canopy.     

 Beginning with this post, the Cambria blog will outline ten major “touches” of the vines throughout the year, from the winter months when the vines are effectively sleeping, to the ultimate human activity in the vineyard, harvest. Keep in mind, all of these “touches” are motivated by one thing: As Denise Shurtleff says, “Good quality grapes have much better overall flavor and aroma characters.”

Vineyard Touches: Pruning

Spur-pruning Pinot Noir. Note small shears held by workers.

Cambria’s Vineyard Manager, Matt Mahoney, who’s been with the winery since 2008, is our guide to “touches.” He begins with a description of the main winter activity. Pruning refers to vineyard workers cutting back on the number of buds on the vine which, if left to grow, will develop into that summer’s grape crop. As Amerine and Singleton note, “If too many [buds] are left, the vine probably cannot mature all the fruit; if too few [buds] are left, the quality is generally good, but the yield is impaired.” Wine being a business, vineyardists have to find the right balance.

Vineyard Touches: Pruning

Worker cane-pruning Chardonnay vines.

Pruning is generally performed between the second week in December and last week in January, when the vines are dormant. “It is arguably one of the most important touches,” Mark points out. “We take into consideration the vine’s previous year’s vigor, and desired tons.  Each block has a ‘big picture’ of what we are targeting, but we take the time to address each vine’s needs.”

Pinot Noir is pruned first, because it is usually in a more advanced state of growth than Chardonnay. Pruning at Cambria also starts in the east and then the pruning crew works their way west, based on the ripening pattern in the vineyard. Pinot Noir tends to be pruned more heavily than Chardonnay, which, says Matt, “can handle a larger crop.” Pruning is a labor-intensive activity; at Matt points out, pruners are among the most skilled vineyard workers you can find. The results, we think, speak for themselves, in the quality of Cambria’s wines.

Vineyard Touches: Pruning

Worker tying canes.

Next month, we’ll take up “touches” that occur during the warmer Spring and Summer months: tying, shoot thinning, suckering and shoot positioning.

By: Steve Heimoff