After the exciting and busy Christmas period, January (let’s not mention that heathen cousin, “Dry January”) is a bit of a time to take a breath in the wine industry, plan for the year ahead and reflect. Personally, I’m sitting here thinking about January of 4 years ago when I spent my first winter working in the vines.
The first 2-3 months of the year in a vineyard are, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, one of the most important of the entire year. It’s the same with any agricultural activity, really – so much is done to prepare the way for a (hopefully!) successful harvest. Drive past any field of vines and you’ll see lines of workers as they make their way up and down the rows, not picking of course, but pruning and clearing.
Good pruning is quite a skill. To the extent that there are competitions in France to see which pruner has the most skill and speed. Each region, grape varieties and indeed style of wine often has its own “best practice” when it comes to pruning, but the basic principle is the same. Ultimately, it is about harnessing a vine’s potential vigour in a way to maximise its potential fruit-bearing ability.
I’ve mentioned it before, and it’s almost a cliché now, but vines produce optimally when slightly stressed. It’s a delicate balance – too few nutrients, and it can’t produce good fruit. Too, and it won’t produce fruit because it doesn’t need to. It can quite happily expend all its energy just growing itself – why reproduce when it doesn’t feel its existence is threatened? I’ve seen as much as 10 meters of growth in a vine in one year. It doesn’t hang around.
So, taming that growth and focussing a vine’s energy towards producing great fruit requires a skill that is mostly science and technique, but also an art. Understanding the basic principles of how many spurs to cut and how many buds to leave then needs to be applied to vines which have often seen 30 or 40 years of gnarled growth. Sometimes, gut instinct just comes into it.
Having grown up in the city, I remember being perplexed, frustrated and frankly sometimes annoyed by the vagaries of greenery. Spending several years in and amongst them means I now listen to Gardener’s Question Time with something approaching understanding and enjoyment!
Or perhaps that’s just down to me getting older… Oh well. Time to crack open that lovely bottle of sherry I have saved up.