The harvest may be done but the real work is far from over. Charles Pestridge talks about pruning
The harvest is in and finished and many wines are still fermenting in the tanks, whilst others are going into the barrels already. The vines themselves have been deliberately left alone since the end of the harvest so that the canes can harden before the pruning begins, but also to allow them to store carbohydrates (sugar) in their trunks, which will nourish the new shoots and flowers during the spring. That is why you will still see the vines being irrigated, even though there is no fruit on them and the leaves are dying and falling off.
“A winemaker who doesn´t have mud on his boots is not a winemaker”
A well managed vine will live way over one hundred years. We have many very old vines here in Mendoza, producing good grapes, but the key is good “vine management”. It was not so long ago that many a winemaker would have you believe that the quality of his wine was determined solely in the winery itself, so all he really wanted was a good summer. The younger and better trained winemaker will tell you that the fundamental key to great wine is the effort put into managing the plant. There is more than a grain of truth in the maxim “a winemaker who doesn´t have mud on his boots is not a winemaker”. Many of the younger, very talented winemakers have trained as agronomists prior to training as oenologists.
The first step in the annual work cycle of vine care is the pruning. Here in Mendoza that will usually start within the first ten days of June and involves cutting out most of the canes that supported and nourished this year´s grapes. It is the longest single task in a vineyard and every body will try to finish it before the second week of September, as weather permitting, we hope to see the new buds opening by then. It is very hard work pulling the cut canes off the supporting wires, as the very tough, resilient tendrils have wrapped themselves around the wires to support the weight of the canopy canes, leaves and fruit.
“The pricier a bottle, the less fruit per vine”
The objective is to carefully select either canes, or spurs that will produce healthy, vigorous shoots in the coming season. In some instances you will see quite thick lateral arms (cordons) running along the fruiting wire to the left and right from the top of the trunk and here the winemaker and agronomist may elect to cut selected canes, but two inches above the cordon, creating a “spur” with at least two nodes (new buds) on each spur. Alternatively they may elect to saw off the thick cordon and retain the two best, healthiest canes, bending one left and one right and then tying them to the fruiting wire to create new cordons. The length of the two canes and indeed how many spurs will depend on how many bunches of grapes they want each vine to produce.
It is important here to understand that wine retailing at US$10 will come from vines that produce 7lbs each, whilst wine retailing at US$20 will have come from vines that produce only 4lbs each. The pricier a bottle, the less fruit per vine. If a grape vine is left to its own devices (unmanaged) each individual shoot will grow up to 30ft in length and the plant may produce up to 30lbs of fruit, but very poor quality, weak and watery.
“Women do this much faster than men”
Pruning is not rocket science, but it does mean that only the vineyards best and most experienced workers can actually make the selection of which canes to cut and which to retain. These workers have the title of Cuaterlos. The remainder of the workforce will be engaged in pulling all the cut canes out to the end of the rows for subsequent haulage and burning, or pulling them into the centre between the rows for subsequent shredding. Additionally some workers will be retightening the wires which have become slack from the weight of the canopy and the rigours of pruning, whilst others will be tying down the new cordon canes. Women do this much faster than men!!
The pruning is a massive team undertaking and is just one important facet of good plant management–frequently done when frost is on the ground, with consequent ice-cold feet and hands. Think about this as you swirl smell and taste. Good drinking and “cheers”.