2021 - Its Vintage Begins. Training

by Justin Wuycheck

Around the Northern Hemisphere, roughly between the latitudes of 30° and 50°, vineyard owners and workers are bundling themselves against the chill and cold. Calculations tick out in mind and in discussions. “Is the temperature too low? How much do we cut? What do we retain? If we do A, and the probable X happens, the season is a disaster and the children have to make lunch money sloping hogs; but if we do A, and the equally-probable Y happens, the mud on our boots leads to red-carpet galas.” Estimations, hopes, fears and facts are all weighed, reweighed, rejected, revisited – finally, a decision comes to rest heavily on the vineyard’s chief. That person outlines the objectives, gives guidance and the workers begin: Will our labors blessed be, and fructify but merrily, or have we started our path towards desolation?

A little bit dramatic, but just a little: Training grapevines is one of the most important steps a grower takes during the season; the first step that affects the fecundity of the present year, and even the following.

A polar cold has fallen over Europe this year, ending a mild winter with negative temperatures (Celsius) well and far into double digits. In the Czech Republic, where I live, some of the mountains are seeing temperatures down to -30°C (-22°F). No one I know has yet tried to raise vines on the tops of mountains, but even on the hillsides and plains where grape and laughter grow, we’ve gritted our teeth over the past week in -9°C (15°F). There’s more gritting when you don’t have the proper footwear…

Št’astný Nový Rok, vinici!

Well, now that we talked about the weather and we know each other a bit: “Hi, my name’s Justin. I work in tourism for Pathways, and in this second CoVID year, I’m working a lot in a vineyard. Vineyard work’s lovely if you like sore muscles, repetitious motions, and seasonally relevant maladies like chilblains and sunburns – they all seem to suit me well.”

Anyway, Bogdan Trojak, owner of the Prague natural wine bars, Veltlin and Autentista, with his partner and Georgian natural wine importer, Salome Khardzeishvili, took me with them to start the 2021 vintage in the dramatic setting you see above, some of the northernmost vineyards in Europe.

That start, as mentioned, was training the vines for spring’s new vegetation. Training involves a lot of pruning first, the cutting away of the past two years’ growth. Text books claim that up to 90% of the weight of the vine is removed during training; to my eyes that seems accurate enough.

Before: A stake-supported Pendelbogen-trained vine – “Oooh, it’s a heart that’s so cute.”

Training takes a fair share of observation, as each cut advances or recedes the grower’s goal of optimal fruit quality at optimal fruit quantity. Leave too many canes ( one-year-old wood, the smoother brown branches with little or no bark in the picture above) and one might get a lot of fruit. Yupee, except the quantity won’t be of quality because the vine will disperse its limited nutrients among a lot of grapes. Alternatively, the vine might think that the living is easy, keeping its luxuriating branches and all, and it decides to produce fewer grapes, not expending much energy on them.
Alright, then the obvious answer then is to prune, and prune severely. Well, yes, buuuuttt, prune too much and the vine will also not produce fruit, using all its resources to keep itself alive by creating those marvelous, green, solar-energy collectors we call leaves.

In the Pendelbogen method we are using, each vine has a head; this is the top of the trunk. The majority of the vines have two arms ( small, woody, more-or-less permanent branches – these are very small in this vineyard and ideally should remain so.) growing from the head. Out of these arms come the growths that perdure for one, two years at tops. We aim to keep all growth as close to the head as possible (If I remember correctly from the book Wine Science, Principles and Applications, this is to maximize nutrient and energy delivery to the fruit and not to the maintenance of the vine structure), but we have to leave buds to produce leaves and fruit. So, starting from the head, we look for a total of four strong canes that will make this year’s and next year’s hearts. Strong, healthy canes are about the thickness of a pencil or so. Some of the vines on this plot have canes sticking directly out of their heads, some do not. We then look for strong canes growing on the arms and their two-year growth (one side at a time), looking for the first two strong canes growing out of it. The lower cane, closest, if not attached, to the head should be clipped to one or two buds; it is called a spur and will become half the heart for next year, but now it can grow on its own and prove itself fecund.

Green = Head (covered in snow). Blue = Arms. Growing from the arms is the woody 2-year growth. Yellow = Canes / spurs meant to remain. Red = Cuts. Yellow, upside-down “L” = a coloring mistake I made

On the vine above, there were no canes growing directly out of the head or the arms. On the two-year growth on each side, the healthy canes closest to the head got cut way back ( becoming “spurs”, marked by a gold dot). The next healthy canes, marked by gold stars, become the two halves of this year’s heart. These were left untouched momentarily, but the rest of the two-year growth above it was cut off, taking with it all the other canes of last year. Finally, the canes were also trimmed, down to about 12-10 buds per cane. Ten is an ideal number, but we had to leave enough length that the canes are pliant when we bend them into their heart shape. The result looks something like this:

After: Broken hearts strewn across the snow-palled frozen ground. Happy Valentine’s Day.

Generally, two long canes for this year’s heart have been left; harder to see are the spurs (On the foremost vine on the left, there is one spur near the base of the cane).

You might say, “Gee, you don’t have a close up of a trimmed vine?” I write you, “No, I don’t; and you know why? Because I was cold and the only thing that kept me warm was movement.” I was there to dress vines, not expose my fingers to freezing temperatures as to use my phone at every teachable moment. Okay, my core was fine, but I would wiggle my toes every few minutes to remind them that they were alive and I liked them. Was it the baseball player Yogi Berra who said, “The great thing about going numb is that you can’t feel anything”? No, it wasn’t, I just wrote that, but he would have said it, standing in the snow with simple leather shoes, hoping three pairs of socks would keep his digits uniced.

Salome, expedient clipper of vines, as the winter sun alights upon her.

Watching Salome and Bogdan, I grew a little envious as they moved quickly from plant to plant. It makes sense; they’ve done this all before; I have less practical experience. But something else slowed me down, wool gloves. Wool is one of the most blessed insulators on earth, able to retain heat when wet; it did just this job for me. But as it gets wet, it collects more and more snow; then the gloves become floppy, unable to grasp twine, cable or vine. I was reduced to the dexterity of the Cookie Monster, grasping greedily at twigs and making some of the ravenous puppet’s noises, albeit out of frustration.

Fortunately, the vineyard work came with food and shelter, and after 4 hours or so of bent back and benumbed toes, a lunch of hot Georgian soup and the balmy (Read: above-freezing) temperatures of Bogdan and Salome’s unfinished domeček provided a welcomed pause to the day’s labor.

Bogdan approves of the little house’s first hot meal.

The rest of our week saw a deepening of the cold, air hollowing as temperatures plunged. Trimming the vines became a risky act that could damage a varietal even as hardy as Bogdan’s Riesling. While we wait for temperatures to climb a little higher, I can share this wonderful experience of working in the vineyard. I’ll share some new pictures, but only when I have my snow boots.

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