Why do so many vines die before their time?” This is a question which has occupied Martin Foradori Hofstätter for years.
Was it down to climate change, or changes in the air and soil which weaken and even kill a vine at the tender age of twenty while its normal life expectancy would be sixty years and more.
To investigate the cause he sawed a vine apart and found rotten wood inside. Most of the plant’s conductive tissues had been destroyed, damaged above all in places where the vine had been pruned back year after year.
Parasites had infested the open wounds and, together with fungal infections, had eaten into the heartwood to such an extent that he was taken aback, especially given that the vines appeared perfectly normal from the outside.
Around twenty years ago the phenomenon of ailing and dying vines in local vineyards caught the attention of two young men from Friuli and set them thinking. Marco Simonit and Pierpaolo Sirch, both agricultural science students, travelled all over Italy and other Mediterranean countries in search of vineyards with old, healthy vines. They collected hundreds of plants which they compared and inspected in the minutest detail. After years of field research they began to understand the secret of ‘eternal youth’, i.e., that where vines had stayed productive into a ripe old age the winegrower had intervened in the vineyards as little as possible.
Much more than technology
Year by year vines are pruned back in order to concentrate the plant’s nutrient reserves and energies into ripening the fruit. Grapes need air and sunlight. To expose them and further air circulation, through the leaf canopy superfl uous shoots are removed and vines are trained onto catch wires into an architectural form which differs from region to region. The most common form worldwide comprises long rows of low, upright espalier-trained vines. From the upright stem, fruiting canes are trained horizontally along wires, from which shoots are trellised upwards and tied to catch-wires. Many litres of water are transported up to the leaves and subsequently the fruit via the root system and main stem.
Without water photosynthesis could not take place and no nutrients would reach the grapes. Any kind of damage to the ducts through which nutrients circulate, tiny capillary vessels, cuts the plant’s main arteries causing fatal damage. To remedy this the two ‘grape preparers’, as the two agronomists from Friuli call themselves, carefully adapt the natural vigour of the vines to modern trellising methods.
With patience to success
Martin Foradori Hofstätter is convinced of the validity of this old but revolutionary method of winter pruning.
When pruning the vines in winter the grower determines which spurs will produce fruiting canes to be trained up onto the catch-wires in spring, then while managing the canopy in early summer he decides which shoots to leave during the following winter to develop into next year’s fruiting canes. During winter pruning, deep cuts caused while cutting back old wood should be avoided. Eventually branches should develop which can be pruned back in alternate winters and the grower never cuts back wood which is older than two years. Vines pruned painstakingly in this way yield grapes which are more uniform in development and quality, making it no longer necessary to thin out underdeveloped grapes in summer. A healthy, naturally resistant plant is self-sustaining and there is no need for constant interventions by the winegrower.
These pioneers from Friuli have found plenty of followers both in Italy and abroad. In South Tyrol Hofstätter was the first estate which has adopted this pruning method.
Growers who still train their vines on pergolas, South Tyrol’s traditional trellising system, do not need to change their methods given that the vines are able to expand upwards with long sap veins. “In this way the vines can remain productive into old age”, says Martin Foradori Hofstätter, “hundred year-old examples are quite common.”
Thanks to the pergola the Hofstätter estate still has a precious stock of very mature Lagrein and Pinot Noir vines. However, with the cane pruning technique described above it is usually best to keep the vines as short as possible, making a further small revolution in pruning unavoidable.
A great wine is born in the vineyard, of grapes yielded by strong and resistant vines. In order to embark on this route conviction and commitment on the part of the winegrower are indispensable but he can be confident that his labours will bear the desired fruits.