Out in the vineyard, the last of the leaves are falling to the ground and the vines have all gone to sleep for the winter. This is the signal for us to start the most important job of the year – pruning. Pruning grape vines is a critical activity as the vine will only produce fruit on new growth. The grapevine in the natural world climbs other trees to get up into the canopy to gain all that sunlight so that its sweet fruit is accessible to birds who can then distribute its seeds across the forest floor. The strategy of fruiting on new wood allows the grape vine to grow and compete with its host.
As winegrowers, we much prefer things to be a bit more orderly and managed so we trellis our grapes on to wire trees and prune them to keep them close to the ground. At the same time, we don’t exactly want to encourage the grape vine to put all that energy into growing canopy, rather we want it to put that energy into its fruit.
In Matakana, as with the most of New Zealand, we are blessed with mild and temperate winters. This means we can prune our plants in one step. Spare a thought for viticulturists in the northern parts of China where they prune and then bury their plants to winter over and then come back in spring to unearth them and stand them up as spring breaks.
There are no hard and fast rules as to the best approach to pruning. In a general sense, vines are either spur pruned (i.e. last year’s wood is trimmed right back to a few buds) or cane pruned where two or more canes from last year are laid down. The selection of which approach to use is made by the viticulturist from their experience of the vines, the site and the ultimate goals of the wines to be produced in the coming years. The pruning decision, selecting which canes to keep and so on, impacts not only the fruit potential for the coming growing season but the pruning potential for the next season.
For the viticulturist, this means getting intimate with each and every plant in the vineyard. The pruner needs to visualise how the grape vine will look this time next year when they come back to prune and ensure there is the right wood, in the right places. Then, and only then, does the pruner remove last year’s canes and sends a quiet blessing to the plant as it sleeps until spring.