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The pruner's promise

Text by Vincent Remy

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The pruner's promise

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The pruner's promise

It is the ultimate wine-making gesture.

The pruner's promise

ON A PARTICULARLY MILD, sunny day in December, a group of around twenty vignerons, both men and women, is spread throughout a few rows of a single vineyard parcel, busily pruning vine after vine. Such a mass of vignerons makes for an unusual sight in the Médoc, where it’s common to see solitary workers scattered about a vast estate – a man pruning over here, farther off a woman focused on her vine-training duties, and still farther away another man pruning. “It was us, the women, who asked that we be taught how to prune" says Sylvie, a veteran of fourteen years at Château Palmer. “To have the same wages as men, we needed to be able to do their work. In 2013 we started off with one or two days of pruning per week. The next year, we pruned the entire season. It’s very interesting work, because it requires you to think quickly. In two seconds you need to take a mental photograph of the whole vine, and then make the right decision…”

“It was us, the women, who asked that we be taught how to prune”
Sylvie — Winegrower, Château Palmer

PRUNING HAS TRADITIONALLY been seen as men’s work. And that continues to be the case at the vast majority of Médoc estates where the labourers are still paid by the task, generally working as a couple. Each couple handles the same parcels year after year, and there’s a strict division of labour. In 2005, the management team at Château Palmer introduced the collective approach to vineyard work then, eight years later, dashed the traditional division of labour by sex. “We trained all the women in pruning, but we also trained all the men in vine-training work like acanage and relevage, and that didn’t go down quite as well…” says Sabrina Pernet. She underlines another advantage: “Everyone is involved in the whole process. And that makes us a powerfully effective workforce. If the vine started growing early, we would need to speed up the whole pruning process, but we know our twenty-four workers can really get the job done. That’s essential.”

POWERFULLY EFFECTIVE, then, but also remarkably consistent. Old-timers remember how each worker used to leave his mark on his parcel through his individual pruning style, and even after he left one could still recognize his signature years later. Today, teamwork needs the pruning method to be as similar as possible from one worker to another.

Why is this uniformity so important? To answer that question one must recall the origins of pruning, and the very nature of the vine. According to one amusing legend of the wine world, the first being to prune a vine wasn’t a man but a donkey. Bushes of wild vines must have been grazed by animals, and people remarked that the grapes on the shortened branches were bigger. In its wild form the grape vine is a liana, a long-stemmed, woody vine which climbs up trees. A “social plant”, then, as it seeks contact with other plants. “One vine could cover a hectare!” says Sabrina Pernet. “Yet we have 10,000 vines per hectare, so each vine has only a square metre to express itself . . . As vignerons, our vocation is to turn a grapevine into a bonsai, we try to prune it as closely as possible to obtain the most beautiful fruit. From this point of view, the Médoc method is very effective.”
Better known as the Double Guyot pruning method, the vine trunk is structured so as to have two arms, each with a long vine shoot called a fruiting cane, or aste in French, whose length and number of buds (generally between two and four) will be determined depending on how vigorous the vine is. In the springtime, these buds will grow into shoots which will carry grapes.

“Each vine has only a square metre to express itself”
Sabrina Pernet — Technical director, Château Palmer

NATURE STILL PLAYS TRICKS APLENTY. For with each bud that is cut off, a pruning wound is made. And behind each wound a little bit of wood dies. With the Médoc pruning method, we create such wounds at the top and bottom of each shoot. Dead wood thus impedes the flow of sap from all sides, and the circulation becomes tortuous. Worse, the wounds become so many gateways for esca, an ancient vine fungus (the Romans knew it well), long fought with sodium arsenite – until the chemical was banned in 2001. Esca enters the vine via the pruning wound, settles in the dead wood and decomposes it. It can eventually overrun the plant, attacking the healthy wood and killing the vine trunk. The apoplectic form of esca disease can kill a grapevine trunk in a matter of weeks, while the slowest-acting form can take several years.

IN THESE CASES, pulling up the vine and replanting is the only option. But at Château Palmer such a fate isn’t seen as inevitable. “The fungus is there to reorganize what is in the process of decay,” explains Sabrina Pernet. “If esca develops in the vine trunk, it’s because it is lacking in vital energy, it has too much dead tissue, and nature is just doing its job of reorganization. So it’s up to us to prune differently. Which is why we’ve turned to the so-called Poussard method, named after the wine grower who invented this way of pruning, which is respectful of the sap flow.” The concept? Select your fruiting cane from the first mature vine shoot at the base of the previous year’s cane, so as to avoid making pruning wounds on the top of the vine trunk arm. In so doing, the sap flow remains smooth and unimpeded.

“We’ve turned to the so-called poussard method, which is respectful of the sap flow”
Sabrina Pernet — Technical director, Château Palmer

DOES THE POUSSARD METHOD reduce esca problems? Despite a dramatic reduction in cases over the last two years, we must remain cautious, for the incidence rate of this fungus varies quite a bit according to the weather. Some believe the soil-friendly practices that have been put in place concurrently with the Poussard method have undoubtedly contributed as well to these encouraging results. With living soils, the plant doesn’t have any deficiencies, it finds all the minerals it needs and its sap circulates well.

RECENT RESEARCH with regard to pruning relates to a subject well known to older vignerons – lunar cycles. What happens when we prune during a rising moon or a waning moon, or when the moon is at apogee or, conversely, at perigee – the point when it is closest to earth?

Palmer conducted an experiment with four parcels to answer that question. “The difference is fairly marked in the case of perigee pruning, where we find greater yields and a lesser degree of grape maturity; it’s quite clear as well with apogee pruning where, in contrast, we have smaller yields but higher levels of phenolic compounds.” It’s thus entirely possible to imagine that a parcel of older, weaker vines could be pruned during the perigee to give the vines a boost. Or, on the contrary, that a parcel of young vines, or vigorous vines in an overly rich soil, be pruned during the apogee. “As the apogee and the perigee only occur once a month, we would reserve those days for our more troublesome parcels.”

IN THE END, when is the ideal moment for pruning? In biodynamic viticulture, we consider that it’s after the winter solstice, because before that the earth is in a phase of mineralization, of concentration, and the vine is still drawing its sap down to its roots.

“Nothing beats pruning in March”, preaches an old maxim, for that’s the time of the year when the vine begins to “weep” as the sap rises. “When we cut a shoot, liquid flows up and out, which means nothing can enter the vine through its wound. But we need to finish before the end of March, because pruning at the same time as the buds are starting to open would be extremely tiring for the vine. The vine is putting all its reserves into producing its first leaves at a time when it’s not yet receiving any other nourishment. These leaves then take over to provide the vine with energy through photosynthesis. It’s a fragile moment, when an autonomous system of energy and sugar production is just warming up, and we’re not about to interrupt that.”

Pausing a brief moment before a twisted old puzzle of a vine, coming up with the solution to coax it into bloom for another season, to make it live again, giving a vine a whole new arm, or perhaps just shorten one… Whatever the case, the enjoyment comes from knowing the story will never be the same.