Winter Work in the Vineyard – Not a fun job (unless you make it so)

When we think of vineyards we generally think of autumn and harvest, when the grapes are collected and made into wine. This is the busiest time of year for both the vineyard and the winery. But there is lots of work to do in the vineyard through out the year.  In winter, there is the pruning and tying down, getting it ready for the next year’s harvest and beyond.

Pruning is probably the most important thing one does in a vineyard as it impacts on your harvest directly.  Pruning is done when the vine is dormant, e.g. not growing, during the colder months. Depending on where one is, this can be any where between November and April. And what pruning you do this year affects successive years, so not just next year, but the years after. Think Bonsai tree and getting it to grow the way you want it to means clipping little bits off each year, training it to become the shape you want, that’s what it is like pruning a vine – you want it to grow they you wish to give you the best fruit for the next year and its future.

Our vines were a mess. They hadn’t been pruned properly in years, maybe not ever from the looks of them. The roots angled over and canes (e.g. a branch) were all over the place, going which ever way.  Ideally what you want is a nice straight ‘trunk’ that would then have a ‘branch’ (or two, depending on method) extending sideways, along a wire, from which additional branches will extend, the ones bearing the grapes. So this first year was about working to get the vines into as close a proximity of the ideal as possible. Sometimes this meant trying to straighten the root stock (trunk) or pruning vigorously.  On some of the vines it will mean almost starting over (but that can wait until de-budding in spring).

So how do you prune a vine?  If you are us, and doing it by hand, we use vine pruning clippers. It you have money and/or a big vineyard you ideally use powered clippers, much, much faster. Your essentially cutting away last years growth and deciding what will grow for this next harvest. Grapes won’t grow on old canes /branches so you have to cut most of those away in readiness for new canes to come through.

A lot of our vines don’t even have a cordon (that bit that goes along the wire and the canes grow up from), so in some cases we were keeping canes to train up to become cordons.  Confused? Look at your hand – your arm is the trunk of the vine, your palm is the cordon and your fingers the canes. The only difference is you want the cordon to be long (not palm size), as this is the part you want to extend along a wire (for support), so you can have a number of canes spaced out, giving you more canes and more room for the grapes.

Simplistically, when you prune, you cut away the old canes, keeping the cordon. In our case we often didn’t have a cordon, so we kept a couple canes (an heir and a spare) to train up for one to become a cordon or even a straighter trunk if the original trunk was really wonky.

You then use a tieing-down tool, which essentially twists a thin wire and then cuts it all in one movement, to attach the cordon to the horizontal wire that gives it support for the coming growing season, as well as train it where you want it to go.  Ideally you want your cordons to go all in one direction. Not ours. Ours were so higgeldy-piggeldy, some going left, others going right, that we decided to tie down a cordon, but also grow a spare if needed, giving us the opportunity in future to have our cordons all going the same way.

It was actually quite fun work, though somewhat back breaking.  Vines are about thigh height, so it does mean bending over throughout, or kneeling down.

We also had to readjust the horizontal wires. Usually there are posts about every 2 metres or so, and these will have a lower wire fastened to the post through a U shaped nail, and then 2 wires above on either side of the post that can be raised up as the vines start to grow up, keeping the canes upright.  Our first priority was getting the lower wire (the one the cordon gets attached to) at the correct height as too many of the wires were too low. Pumpjack duly made a highly technical stick with tape on it for the correct height.  I would hold the stick up to the post and move the wire up to the correct height, putting in a nail to hold it in place.

And our third big job was the soil. All along we had been told that the vines had suffered at the bottom of the hill because of drainage, poor drainage, too much drainage… No one was really sure, it just seemed to be a problem. But with the onset of winter and lots of rain this year, we discovered it wasn’t the bottom of the slope it was the top that had a problem.

There was definitely an issue with water coming from somewhere and we suspected a broken water pipe from one of the neighbours.  However, as this was not something we could fix, particularly not right away, other measures had to be found. The primary solution was to dig drainage ditches  between the vines to drain off the excess water. This worked well, the only trouble was the soil was like clay, slippery and heavy, very heavy.  More hours, more back breaking work, but we were able to see immediate results as the ditches filled with water and drained off. Not perfect, but we were starting to see results.

The vineyard was starting to look more like a proper vineyard, even in dead of winter.


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