Sunshine and Hunger, Pruning

Written by Emily Campeau on the 13th of May 2019

I shifted right to take a look at the position of the sun, and thought « dammit it’s only 3:45 ». For that lately the rhythm of the day seems to be dictated by the evolution of my hunger over our 8 hours of work; for that my Dad’s sermons about paying attention to solar light seems to have finally paid off and replaced the need for a quick phone glance to know how long before our next meal. It’s 3:45pm, and I long for a snack.

I take a second to assess which state my body is in. Slight fatigue, dry skin, painful thumb, stiff neck, lungs full of fresh air, need to pee. All in good place.

I don’t have a lot of pruning experience under my belt. In fact, if you are looking for the « Weninger World Book of Pruning Ideas » by reading this blog post, I strongly suggest you give a phone call to Franz Junior or Franz Senior, which would significantly boost your chances of learning something.

I would describe what I knew about pruning before starting as scholar, impractical, and overall ignorant. There is nothing written in a book that can do justice to the feeling of walking up the row to a new plant, and read into its past and future life in a matter of seconds before cutting. Well, seconds, if you are war machines like my coworkers who have pruned for numerous years, picking up speed and leaving me behind with my slow decisions making. What can I say, I don’t want to fuck it up. I’ll be faster next year.

It’s winter (well, is it really?), the season of the quiet work, after the tornado of the summer months, followed by the peak of fall where it’s the grand finale of the grape growing year: harvest time. If we can compare harvest to the end of a symphony where all the instruments are playing their loudest notes, pruning could be considered as a prelude, when you feel your mind slowly catching up on the different part of a music composition. Put in a less romantic way, it’s monastic time spent in the vineyards deciding whatever will be for the growing season to come, and the following ones too. Excellent time as well to catch up on some podcast lateness, do some inner therapy about some long lost friendships, or give a call to your Mom if you haven’t talked to her since harvest finished.

While being the pole opposite of harvest when it comes to energy and craziness, it is the time to assess the current state of each vineyard, each vine, and the planted surface as a whole.

Many crucial decisions will be made during winter; ripping out some vineyards is a drastic one, but is sometimes for the best. Changing pruning styles on certain plots is an other one, to manage yields differently, and give a new frame to certain vines. Different varieties call for various pruning style, the opinions often differ, even here amongst all the workers. I’m still taking it in, staying silent to absorb as much theory as possible to maybe have an opinion one day, or just because I don’t speak German (yet) so I can’t participate in most conversations anyway, go figure.

But if there is one thing I have learned during pruning season this year, is that if you pay a close look, and you come in with an open heart and mind, nature lets itself being understood. I may be the slowest pruner in all of Mittelburgenland — I never saw the top of the hill in Ritzing because someone always finished my row — I did learn how to do a good job.

I’m navigating through fundamentals with a bit more ease: how to differentiate wood from one, two, three years before, how to select the best potential fruit cane (on a Guyot bien sûr), how to get rid of all the wood without cutting the previously selected fruit cane. Sounds easy but try it on the fragile, prone-to-crack Blaufränkisch: a broken, too short of a fruit cane makes it for a lot of swearing during upcoming tying season. Also, late afternoon in above mentioned Ritzing with constant, vigorous wind can make your mind tired, it may or may not happen that you cut your own fruit cane by mistake.

Only once. Ok twice.

Note on zapfens: also known as courçon de rappel for y’all francophiles out there. Finding the right cane to cut down to one or two eyes (buds) in order to plan for next year’s vine shape was one the most challenging responsibilities involved with my pruning apprenticeship this year. In a simple Guyot pruning, one fruit cane with a selected numbers of potential fruitful buds will be kept (we keep 8 here), and shall give birth to this year’s fruits. A zapfen is security, for that it gives you different options when the NEXT pruning season comes. It is an efficient way to manage yields and productivity, and build the vine in the desired shape. It is also a way to make sure the juice is a-flowing within the body of the plant. For an experienced pruner, it all make sense rapidly, which of this years canes is NOT ONLY in the right position (ideally opposite to the fruit cane), but also has eyes directed in an interesting way for next year’s growth. Having a zapfen with eyes pointing downwards, north/south, or on top of the head of the vine is not the smartest projection for the future, did I learn.

Note from Franz: We try to have the juice streams on the outside of the vine left and right so the spur opposite of the fruitcane at the same height would be the best position. This way, both have the same power and both positions are equal.

Pruning is crucial. For the shaping of the vine’s silhouette, for maintaining balance between aeration, foliage development, sunshine exposure, vigor and that sweet spot between quantity and quality. Each vine tells a different story: from exuberant Merlot to royal Blaufränkisch to newly grafted Furmint vines. You sometimes stand in front of five different possibilities of cutting/shaping, and other times only one. I had heard it before and heard it again this year, but it all comes down to a few very simple words: « be creative and make a decision » . Paying attention becomes quickly rewarding, and leads to some sort of bizarre symbiosis with the plant. Far from me the idea of sounding esoteric, but I’d lie if I said I didn’t get the pruning groove: aka emerging 4h later with no idea where the day went, what you were thinking about or which day of the week it is. I learned also that making poor pruning choices is something the plant will keep scars of for multiple years. The plant bears trauma every time you snap your cutters. The whole exercise requires focus, precision, and and a dose of intuition. Which I may have completely relied on. I haven’t been fired yet.

Note from Franz: Some varieties bring fruits on the the first 2 buds and some only on longer canes. This is why for Blaufränkisch and Zweigelt we prune canes but on Furmint we make a cordon with zapfen.

Pruning is also crucial for the mind I believe. I am extremely glad to work for a winery where a lot of
people are cross-involved in helping out in the vineyards, coupled to indoor cellar work. While mostly being a non-speaking endeavor, and being sometimes guided by the faint melody of everybody’s lunch digestion, it is a time to rejoice. I too will potentially be fast and machinal in 15 years, when all of this will be less shiny and new. But I highly doubt it will get redundant. I recall a conversation back in October with Athénaïs de Béru — vigneronne in Chablis and overall idol of anyone who’s ever met her — discussing the fast approaching 2019 pruning season where she exclaimed « It’s the best time of the year! » and went on discussing about how standing with her staff in the cold Chablis winter and eating hot soup at night was priceless. I can finally say that I agree, whole-heartedly.

Note from Franz: Winter as a quiet time is perfect time for making decisions, decisions for the winery (vineyards plantings, wines) and also for the the pruning as you wrote. Every vine forces you to make a decision. During a quiet time, there will be more chances that someone makes the right decisions.

Note on the weather: I can’t complain, it’s been nice every day but one when I was out. (I work only part-time). I’m not going to lie, I needed the sunshine, and the caressing warm weather after leaving the shitty Montreal winter behind in January. But wearing t-shirts out in the middle of February leaves a knot in the throat that tastes bittersweet, but mostly bitter. It is alarmingly early to see flowers in the vineyards. Too fast, too soon. Simply explained, if the vines come out of dormancy too rapidly, the risk for spring frost is exponentially higher, thus damaging the production for vintage 2019 and possibly beyond.

Our eclectic team is now packing up the snips until next year, moving on to the next steps of the grape growing season. A thorough check of all the wire systems, followed by the tying of the fruit canes to allow foliage to develop, then comes épamprage, and so on. We have been solidifying our young vines to their poles also, a necessary job to train them properly. We said goodbye to some of our vineyards, a tough decision that shall evolve into new possibilities.
At this rate, we’ll take three deep breaths and harvest will be around the corner.
But it’s close to 5 now, time for a snack. And a beer.
But not before I walk my way up to the top of the row.

There is a killer Burgenland-Special sunset to be seen.

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