We first visited the vineyard last autumn to meet the team and were treated to the most splendid celebratory end of harvest feast of barbequed venison and plenty of wine. Early this year we trundled back down to Grange Estate on a cold morning to meet vineyard manager Phil Norman and his team to learn about pruning. With little more than a square of Deptford earth to tend, and little knowledge of wine (aside from being fairly good at drinking it) it would be fair to describe us as complete novices in the fields of horticulture and viticulture. After a morning shadowing Phil and his expert pruners, this was irrefutably confirmed.
'Pruning is arguably the most important job of the year. You’re predetermining the yield you’ll get from the vines at harvest. It’s not 100% accurate, but it’s a very good way of measuring and managing the type of yields you hope to achieve . . .’
It's clear that caring for vines is something of an art: a quest for the perfect balance of strength of cane, quantity of buds and quality of grapes. Too much growth, too quickly, and the vine is too fragile to bear its full potential of fruit and the quality of the structure compromised; not enough growth and the all-important yield will be lessened.
There are different schools of thought regarding the best time of year to prune. Some vineyards in the areas choose to prune late, maybe waiting until March or even later. One reason for choosing to wait is that by March the sap might have already started to rise in preparation for bud-burst towards the end of April, early May. As Phil explained, the presence of sap can help to heal the pruning wounds and flush out any potential spores and trunk disease such as Eska and Eutypa (currently a hot topic in the UK viticulture scene). However when it’s this cold (and it really is freezing, with morning temperatures of -5 on occasion) the weather does the job for you, naturally eradicating spores and pests and helping to seal the pruning wounds.
While a bout of cold weather at this time of the year is kind to the vines, it’s not quite so kind to the farmers and it's a long day out in the field with 8am starts and 4.30pm finishes. Phil tries to use the same team of workers throughout the year, from pruning right through until harvest, and ideally from one year to the next too. Many of the men and women here for pruning were here for last year’s harvest and despite the biting cold and heavy skies, there’s a cheerful camaraderie and a sense of collective responsibility for the land and the vines as the growing cycle begins for another year.
The vineyard is pruned according to a traditional cane and spur system made popular by one Dr Charles Guyot in the 1860s. In previous years Grange Estate has been pruned on a single Guyot system, with only one spur and one cane left on each vine. This year some of the more vigorous plants will be moving on to a double-Guyot: keeping two spurs and two canes from each vine.
As self-confessed novices, at this juncture it seems prudent to hand over to the experts at Plumpton College for a more detailed description of pruning by the Guyot system. Plumpton is renowned as the UK’s Centre for Excellence in Wine, offering a wide range of courses at college level, from week-long intensive introductions to vinegrowing to undergraduate and masters degrees in Viticulture and Oenology.
Plumpton also runs the WineSkills training programme designed to support the expanding UK wine production industry. Indeed, the day after our visit, Phil and Lauren were hanging up their boots to attend a WineSkills masterclass in grapevine trunk disease hosted by the Denbies Wine Estate in Surrey. With upcoming specialist classes on subjects such as filtration, cover crops, blending and tirage, and packaging, it seems that for 21st century vintners there’s as much to be learned from academia and science as from traditional husbandry.
THE GUYOT SYSTEM
The Guyot system is a traditional practice popularised by Charles Guyot in the 1860s. It is a cane-pruned system with spurs. The cane buds grow into shoots that produce the yield in the following season. The spur buds produce shoots that can be used as canes the following year, thus preventing the vine from sprawling too far along the trellis. Often, spurs become part of the old wood. In single Guyot, only one spur and one cane are left at winter pruning. In double Guyot, two spurs and two canes are retained. The choice between single and double Guyot is decided by the vigour of each individual plant
The spur should always be selected first. It should be:
- Not too low or under the crown
- Pointing along the row and not into the alley
- Not too high or centrally located on the crown
- Nearer the roots than the cane
The cane should be selected so that it is further from the roots than the spur and it should be able to be tied down (bowed) so that:
- It does not protrude into the alley
- It does not invade the neighbouring vine’s trellis space
- The buds are evenly spread along the trellis
Canes are often tied down in the shape of an arch to regularise shoot vigour along their length.
Reproduced from the WineSkills website - an initiative managed by Plumpton College: www.wineskills.co.uk
You’re always looking ahead when pruning, always considering the next season . . . two well-positioned spurs are absolutely crucial at pruning because it gives you options for the following pruning season’
Phil and Lauren are rigged with hand-held shears powered by electric battery packs, their expertise and experience allowing them to move quickly along the rows and make large, accurate cuts. The rest of the pruners work in small teams with manual Felco secateurs, moving together and trimming and cutting away. It’s not ideal to prune in the rain because spores travel much faster in warm and wet conditions, so on damp days the team downs tools and works with their hands to pull the cut debris away from the canes.
Once the pruning is completed any leftover dead wood is pulled away from the canopy and piled up in the grassy avenues between the lines of trellises before being collected up and burnt or tilled back in to the soil.
As we pick our way back through the wooded skeleton of the vineyard, the days of harvesting bathed in low golden sun last autumn seem both far behind and way ahead. But with pruning completed for the year, the promise of amber leaves and rich purple and green clusters of grapes seems a little nearer. Next, bud-rubbing.