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The art of pruning

Every vine is sacred, 

Every vine is great, 

If a vine is wasted, 

God gets quite irate. 

It's September, and that means two things worth celebrating in this part of the world: footy finals, and the completion of pruning.

Footy results – not for lack of wishful thinking – can’t be influenced from this end. Fortunately, pruning is a different story. It might take six months or so to reap the rewards, but it is worth far more than the footy tipping booty.

Sometimes you have to suffer for your art

Pruning sets the stage for vintage. It is the “strategy” phase of grape growing, and without it, the vines would be a tangled mass of unproductive canes.

Pruning: Turning dreadlocks to a buzz cut

From the outside, it looks like turning dreadlocks into a buzz cut, with around 90% of the previous year’s cane growth shorn off. But it is a lot more complicated than that. Unlike hair follicles, every vine and every cane that comes from it are part of the life cycle of the grape. Choosing which one to cut, and which one to keep makes a big difference to the quality of the vintage.

An unruly vine waiting to be tamed

An unruly vine waiting to be tamed

Speaking of hair follicles, did you know the average person has more than 100,000 on their head? Our “vitiboy” Nigel has significantly less than that. Maybe that’s why he is so passionate about pruning.

Nigel knows the difference between good and bad pruning, and works with every one of the growers – around 140 at last count – to make sure their vineyards have the best chance of producing top-notch fruit.

Good pruning, good grapes

Bad pruning leads to overcropping, diluted fruit flavour, and thick canopies that are a breeding ground for disease. When it comes to quality grape growing, less is definitely more.

Well-pruned vines have healthy canes, with open canopies giving the fruit airflow and access to sunlight. That translates to intensely flavoured, ripe and healthy fruit. That subsequently translates to happy winemakers.

There are plenty of different pruning styles, and the one Nigel and the winemaking team believe works best in Barossa is spur pruning.

A Stonewell row post and pre-pruning

A Stonewell row post and pre-pruning

This is where a permanent branch is set up on the trellis wire, with two arms trained along the horizontal wires. The vertically growing canes are pruned back to form spurs. At each spur, the best cane is chosen and cut back to two buds – which in a few months time become grapes. The open canopies are well ventilated and let dappled light in to give the fruit colour and flavour.

Louis Pasteur once said, “Wine is sunlight held together by water.” Our plan is to give it just the right amount of both.

Tools of the trade

With technology offering new shortcuts every day, there are plenty of mechanical pruning options. For Nigel, there is no substitute for hand-pruning. Human instinct is still the best technology around.

Tools of the trade, meet 'Jaws'

Tools of the trade, meet 'Jaws'

He guides the growers in the best practice of spur pruning. It’s hands-on all the way, meaning he prunes an awful lot of vines. As most of our growers prune their own vineyards, the care and attention to detail really shows with the end result.

With the gradual adoption of spur pruning, more crops have survived tough years of drought or torrential rain, and more fruit reaches optimal ripeness. Winemaking Chief Andrew Wigan is probably spur pruning’s greatest advocate. He reckons the wine quality across the whole portfolio has rocketed since the magnifying glass was put on the pruning regimes.

It is a lot of hard work. Across the 800-plus vineyard sections in the Peter Lehmann grower family, countless thousands of canes will be cut. Barossans, being a resourceful bunch, find plenty of uses for the canes. countless thousands of canes have been cut over the past chilly months.

The best fertiliser is the shadow of the grower.” Here is Nigel pruning and fertilizing at the same time.

Chinese proverb: "The best fertiliser is the shadow of the grower.” Here is Nigel pruning and fertilizing at the same time.