The pruning guys

Sustainable pruning made cool

You’ve all heard of flying winemakers, who dash off around the world imparting their wisdom to young wineries, but how many of you have considered the fact that expert pruners might also be doing something similar? I certainly hadn’t until I met Marco Simonit, when I was lucky enough to attend a whole-day masterclass on pruning organised for Vinitaly Academy alumni and other guests by the Sicilian wine magazine Cronache di Gusto as an educational prelude to their Taormina Gourmet festival.

It wasn’t quite what I expected. Sitting in the tasting room at the Pietradolce winery on Etna, I was anticipating a highly technical, and probably somewhat boring, lecture on pruning techniques, followed no doubt by some practical exercises in the vineyard, that would be highly useful for my studies but would not necessary enthuse me about pruning. Then, this denim-clad guy with a cool white quiff appeared and proceeded to introduce himself. This was Marco Simonit, one of the founders of Simonit&Sirch. They call themselves the pruning guys, or to be more formal, Vine Master Pruners. Their team of 20 pruning guys fly all around the world helping wineries develop more sustainable ways of pruning. Yet, typically their clients are not young wineries, nor are they small fry; they include big names such as Chateau Latour and Chateau Yquem in Bordeaux, Leroy in Burgundy, Roederer in Champagne, Ornellaia in Tuscany, and the list just goes on. They work with similarly prestigious clients throughout France and Italy as well as in Germany, Austria, Spain, Portugal, Australia, Chile, Argentina, South Africa and California.


Pruning for health and longevity

So, why do established estates such as these need the services of these master pruners? Well, many vineyards around the world are ridden with Esca, a fungal disease that can enter through the cuts made by pruning. It’s a serious problem in Bordeaux, where on average 30% of Sauvignon Blanc vines show symptoms as does 7% of Cabernet Sauvignon. Under the desiccation cones – think of them like scars – caused by the pruning, the Esca rots the live wood, which slowly dies. The greater the number and size of the cuts, the greater the damage caused. The yield of the vine is compromised, it doesn’t grow properly and eventually it has to be grubbed up and replaced. One cross-section of a ’live’ vine that Marco shows us is really pretty shocking – about 70% of the vine is actually dead and the sap cannot flow properly and nourish the grapes as this dead wood is effectively strangling the vine. With so little live wood, it’s no wonder that the vine is eventually only able to produce feeble canes and a limited quantity of grapes.

Left to their own devices in the wild, vines will grow to enormous dimensions, creeping up trees and spreading themselves out; they are centenary and can live for hundreds of years. Marco shows us some amazing photos of huge old vines, including some on the Amalfi Coast that are more than two hundred years old with huge trunks and branches and some huge bush vines in Napa. However, domesticated vines need to be pruned so that they fit in the limited space – their first enemy – available to them in the vineyard. A great variety of different training methods have been devised depending on the region, for example guyot in Burgundy, pergola in Trentino, albarello on Etna and einzelfahl in the Mosel. These vines all need to be pruned to maintain the form of these training systems and prevent them from encroaching on their neighbour. This limits their growth in space and in time, since it, unfortunately, slowly kills them in many cases, as they fall prey to fungi and diseases like Esca and lack the energy to fight them.


Marco has been pruning vines for over 30 years and has been trying to find a more respectful approach; over the last 15 years, Simonit&Sirch have developed their own method to ensure vines lead longer, healthier lives. It works on the basis of four main concepts. Firstly, shaping the vine by pruning so that it is able to develop a natural, healthy system of branches. Secondly, ensuring that the sap is able to flow throughout the vine’s structure, without being hindered by desiccated areas caused by pruning wounds. This means always making cuts on the same side – the top – so that the sap can continue to flow along the vine’s branches. Thirdly, only making small cuts and only on wood that is one or two years’ old. This means that the size of the wound is reduced and hence also the chance of a wood disease entering. Finally, always giving the plant further defence by allowing a certain amount of protective wood if you do have to cut older wood. And actually, when you think about this, it’s pretty logical really. Compare the vine with a person and what effect large and frequent wounds would have on them. Moreover, encouraging the vine’s ramification and construction of live wood helps it to store nutrients and better resist drought, meaning that it needs less assistance with irrigation and fertilisation, so it’s easier to be not only organic or biodynamic, which is not enough anyway, but also to be sustainable.


Sustaining local tradition

Unlike the impression we have of flying winemakers, with their one-style-fits-all winemaking, the pruning guys not only respect the vine with their method, but also local traditions and savoir faire. They don’t import one model or formula, they take the local training and pruning methods and ’tweak’ them; they seek out local solutions. For example, the branches of cordon- trained vines are encouraged to grow up, but they could also be trained obliquely, so that they develop a step of new live wood each year, but don’t grow upwards too quickly. They believe it’s important to get to know the history, variety and brand style when developing solutions. Eighty-three-year-old Madame Leroy of Burgundian Domaine Leroy was deemed crazy by the locals when she decided to raise the main wire in her vineyards and increase the height of the stakes, giving the vines more space, rather than cutting them back. Nobody has else has stakes that high in Burgundy. However, as Marco says, that’s bravery, not craziness. Tradition is the vines, not the stakes. Or you could make a loop in the cane to come back to the canopy and main wire, rather than cutting it. In albarello vines, they have encouraged branching with spiral development of the arms, helping to maximise the space the vine has to grow in and avoid overly fast upward growth. In fact, the albarello, or bush vine, enables you to respect the vine’s growth better as they can grow up and out and generally have more space, which is probably why many old vines are in fact bush vines. However, the key thing is to find personal solutions which both respect heritage and reduce the impact on the vines.

As you can imagine, there is also resistance to this from local pruners, who the guys mentor and train. Yet, using such methods has led to a reduction in the symptoms of Esca, although it may be the case that vines are infected but are better able to coexist with the disease as they are stronger and healthier. For example, in Franciacorta, 4.8% of Chardonnay vines are affected by Esca, yet in vineyards which practice these sustainable pruning methods, ten years on, only 0.8% of them are showing symptoms.


Dealing with existing Esca

Diseases like Esca are easily spread when pruning as a pruner moves through the vineyard from plant to plant. Vines known to have Esca – unfortunately, it can take 10-15 years for them to show symptoms – should be marked so that they can be pruned separately with the secateurs being disinfected between, thus avoiding unnecessary manmade spread of the disease.

They also perform surgery on affected vines, just like you would deal with a cavity in a tooth or remove a cancerous growth. They have developed new tools to remove the desiccation cones like a cork and go inside the vine and clean it, removing the part infected by fungi and reducing the toxins, while respecting the sap flow and thus not creating further wounds. It takes two to five minutes to operate on each vine, and regrowth and recovery are also surprisingly fast. They began experimenting in Bordeaux and have now performed surgery on 12,000 vines in seven regions, including Champagne and Bolgheri. Over 90% of these now exhibit no symptoms and needed no further treatment. Yet, this is not something new, as at the end of the 19th century, Poussard also performed vine surgery very successfully, healing 90-95% of vines operated on.

Healing the vines means that they don’t need to be grubbed up and replaced. This is not only more cost-effective as vines generally recover from surgery within a couple of years, while the cost of replacing a vineyard is significantly more than surgery and also results in the loss of production for five years or so. Moreover, replacing individual vines within established, premium vineyards will lead to a loss of quality, as the vineyard will be populated by vines of varying ages which will not ripen at the same time. They will then not be harvested at optimal ripeness as it would not be feasible to pick the grapes selectively. Thus, these heterogenous vineyards will also affect the house style, which is ultimately not desirable, particularly at prestigious estates. Furthermore, the evolution of a style connected to a single vineyard is something truly valuable, which can only be achieved with the character originating from old vines.

Hands-on learning

After lunch, Marco also took us into the vineyards for a bit of practical experience. Although, as it was the wrong time of year for pruning, nobody was allowed any secateurs in their hands, but Marco took us around vines that had not yet been pruned and we investigated the possibilities in each case for continued natural branching. Following his morning presentation, it was surprisingly easy to select the right canes in most cases. Of course, it was also wonderful to see those old Etna vines that had clearly been respected and in the past and had managed to achieve longevity and still produce high-quality grapes.

Clearly pruning with respect is one of the factors that ensures healthy vines, healthy grapes and hence quality wine – only 5% of grapes from infected vines already lead to a noticeable quality reduction. It also means that we have something to leave to the next generation – a true patrimony of magnificent, healthy vines that can live to a ripe old age and still produce quality healthy fruit, instead of sickly vines that need to be replaced every twenty years or so.

I so thoroughly enjoyed Marco’s energetic, clearly delivered training and learnt so much that I even momentarily considered joining Simonit&Sirch’s pruning school at Plumpton College in January, but my enthusiasm waned when I thought about spending two days outside in wintry English vineyards. However, following this one day of training, I can seriously say that I now understand far more about pruning than I did before and especially what it means for the vines.

*First published in Hungarian in the Sustainability special edition of Vince magazine.