This week, we are taking a short break from our tour of the Rhône to reflect on old vines. ‘Vieilles vignes’ have long been celebrated for their ability to produce better wine – an assertion mainly to do with the associated low yields. Dotted among the rudely healthy old vines in our Cairanne ‘Les Six Terrasses’ vineyard were some vines in need of a little attention. Back in January we photographed the process of rejuvenating an old vine, from ivy covered to expertly pruned and ready for Spring….
‘VIEILLES VIGNES’: Old vines are easily recognisable by the width of their branches. Just as we humans may thicken around the waistline with age, so too do vines. Above, in the picture taken at our Les Six Terrasses vineyard, the broad trunk of an old Grenache Noir vine is barely visible under the suffocating grip of ivy. To the untrained eye this vine may be best uprooted, but given that neighbouring vines are healthy and producing exceptional Grenache destined for our Boutinot Rhône ‘La Côte Sauvage’ Cairanne, all efforts to save the vine were deemed to be worthwhile.
Saving a vine is not a job for a machine. The clasping tendrils of ivy must be removed by hand and, by digging very carefully so as not to disturb the vine underground, the ivy’s persistent roots are also be removed. Generally this is done over the winter (in this case in January 2012) at the same time as pruning takes place in the vineyard but old vines are checked regularly and and ‘pest’ vegetation removed as and when required.
PRUNING: Once the growth on and around the vine has been removed it is then pruned in the same way as for the neighbouring healthy old vines. New shoots are removed, based on an assessment of how many buds a vine of this age would be able to comfortably sustain. In this case we decided to keep six spurs, each of which would yield two buds. Old vine Grenache Noir doesn’t need to be supported by canes so we uses the spur (or goblet) pruning method, as opposed to the cane pruning method where the new branches would be attached to a trellis wire with a rubber band, as would be the case with Syrah. Vine prunings are then lightly shredded in order to create a mulch around the vine’s base.
Pruning is an important part of the wine calendar, the main aim being to control yields during the following harvest. Les Six Terrasses is a low yielding vineyard – in 2011 it averaged just over 30 hectolitres per hectare (against the 40 hectolitres per hectare permitted in Cairanne). For a fuller explanation of pruning see The Oxford Companion to Wine, 3rd Edition, Oxford University Press.
After the ‘operation’ the twisted old vine will survive and new shoots can thrive. All that’s left to do is wait for Spring and the first bud break, checking the vine regularly to ensure it stays healthy.