With spring is in the air we’re noticing the world flowering around us, once bare fruit trees on the back roads of our county are now hosting tender leaves or bright blossoms for our first taste of spring. Out in the vineyards, the vines are coming to life again after a dormant period where they rested their weary limbs, and collect their energies for the next season.
The vineyards are pruned about twice a year and early spring is one of those times. As spring growth begins, the sap starts to flow through the dormant grapevines. Grape growers like to get out before the buds break and leaves appear to prune the vines to give them the best head start for the coming warmth. It is important to prune vines when the buds are plump but not broken open.
Training and pruning vines are two of the most important activities to get high quality grapes and a good yield. If not pruned, grape vines like any vine will get tangled into a briar patch of strands that look like my box of necklaces after I’ve moved. An unpruned vine will have between 10 and 100 times the buds necessary for a good crop of quality grapes. I’ve been to a few pruning workshops and also have chatted with local grape growers about their methods, and I’ve learned that what happens out in the vineyard makes a huge difference in what you ultimately taste in your glass.
A grape vine grows off older wood, some of the new canes are suckers and they need to be removed, others end up hosting the new buds. Typically by the end of first year growth the vine has 3 buds, by third leaf or the third season the vine has 27 buds, and by the 4th year it will have sprouted 81 buds. Once the buds emerge it will take about eight weeks for the foliage and flowers to appear. The grape clusters form from the buds. Like any plant you prune it to give strength to the main canes and to open the plant up to sunlight and good circulation of air, producing bigger sun ripened clusters of grapes.
How the vine is trellised, or cordoned, determines the method of pruning. Some of the older vines you see in local fields look like small trees with canes trailing down to the ground, these are head pruned vines and although grape growers like the quality of the grape, I’ve been told, the yield is low. Different kinds of cordoning, or how the vines are strung along horizontal wires, are the most used in California today. The plant’s natural disposition is to put out as many canes and buds as possible, but as the vine struggles for quantity the grower struggles for quality and pruning is the perfect method for get the best and consistent quality from a grape vine over its growing life.
But once the pruning is done that doesn’t mean grape growers can put their feet up. The new canes imprint on the old by how they are positioned and their development needs close watching and pampering. All of the pollinated and fertilized flowers will become grapes. Once those little embryo grapes appear the fertilizing and vineyard maintenance will go into full swing right through harvest.
I’ve dreamed about having a few vines of my own, but I think I’ll try being better to my house plants first! The challenge and the vigilance it takes to get an award winning grape from the ground is a gift, and the true art of agriculture that we just take too much for granted.