Pruning the vines, an essential part of winemaking.
Pruning season, which lasts from December to March, is a crucial stage in the winegrowing calendar. Ludovic Hérault, property manager at Château Montlabert, is convinced of its importance.
Reduced to its most fundamental elements, the purpose of pruning is to remove the previous year’s vine tendrils, and to determine the yield for the coming vintage. Pruning season marks the beginning of work in the vines. The method used and the choice of date determine maturity, potential yield and the timing of harvest. According to Ludovic, “pruning is an essential step, the cornerstone, of winemaking. Firstly, we work out how we are going to sustain the form of the vine. We call this ‘formation’. Once we have shaped the vine, we determine its load. The idea is to manage the number of branches, to leave enough buds on each branch so that each holds between one and two bunches.”
In reality, the task is much more complex and nuanced, presenting an almost endless number of challenges that affect the quality of the harvest, the health of the vineyard, and its impact on the environment. Taking into account this complexity, the winegrower must maintain a kind of double viewpoint, looking simultaneously at the future of the vineyard, as well as the history of each separate vine. For Ludovic, “When we prune, we shape the vine before we determine its future yield. We look at what happened the year before, in order to decide what will happen in the coming year. That’s one of the difficulties of our profession. We need to keep a record of everything we do. But it is this record that allows us to make wines with a clear identity, a clearly defined style.”
As so often for the winemaker, there is no set recipe. Pruning will always be about adaptation and anticipation. “Each vine is different. Some years, certain vines are weaker, more tired. We adapt to this. When the pruner comes across a vine that is slightly febrile, he can reduce its yield for the year ahead by removing more buds from each tendril. In that way, the vine can rest, and the next year it can get back to its best.” The consequences of poorly managed pruning can be grave: “With time, if we don’t do that, the vines will age more quickly. Yield and quality will suffer. The ide ais to find the right compromise between quality and quantity, all while maintaining a healthy vineyard. When you prune, the life of the vine is in your hands.”
Weather conditions, from the previous year or those anicipated for the year ahead, are also taken into consideration: “frost is part of life as a winegrower. There are also the hazards of mildew, hail. Pruning has to be adapted every time, as we make strategic choices for the vintage to come. As we have had two or three years of frost in Saint-Emilion, this year we have decided to carry out pruning in two parts. This winter, we haven’t touched the ‘entre-coeurs’ (secondary tendrils growing from a bud on the coming year’s tendril). This means that bud break will occur more quickly for these upper parts of the vines, protecting the rest from frost. In April, we will carry out a second pruning, removing the buds from the tendrils we had left to grow, which means that bud break can occur on the tendrils we want.”
Going beyond the impact of external conditions, each property and each terroir present their own particularities. The Château Montlabert vineyard, with plots of sandy gravel surrounding the château and other clay-limestone plots in nearby Saint-Christophe-des-Bardes, is a perfect illustration of the need to react and adapt. “At Château Montlabert, we always start in December, pruning the vines located on the clay-limestone soils in Saint-Christophe-des-Bardes, which ripen later. We prune the plots which surround the property in January and February. The idea, despite this gap, is to ensure that bud break occurs in both areas at more or less the same time. When it comes to grape varieties, we start with the plots of merlot, which ripen earlier, before we move on to the plots of cabernet franc, which ripen later.”
The choice of method is equally important. A number of different pruning techniques exist, which vary according to the region, the grape varieties, and the desired yield. At Château Montlabert, the team prunes using the “double Guyot” technique, which consists of conserving two canes originating from the trunk. “Each region is different, and each grape variety is different, but you have to bring your own personal touch. When I arrived here in 2009, all the vines were pruned using the ‘mixed Guyot’ technique, by which we keep one cane to one side, on the left or the right, and another smaller cane on the other side, which allows us to do the same the next year. When I arrived, I decided to change to ‘double Guyot’, which splits the load in two. Instead of having sixteen bunches on our 50cm cane, we decided to have eight on one, and eight on another. It serves as a natural prophylaxis, a natural means of protection against vine diseases like botrytis, by spreading out, or aerating the harvest.”
This method is a natural solution, allowing Montlabert to limit its recourse to chemical (or organic) treatments. In line with this virtuous philosophy, the previous vintage’s tendrils are systematically “reused”. “At Montlabert, we shred the tendrils. When we remove the previous year’s wood, the workers leave a line of tendrils under their feet. After this, the tractor passes, and shred the tendrils. We don’t tend to speak about it much, but the economic gain is massive. The shredded tendrils are slowly absorbed into the soil. After a few years, the wood chips become humus.”
Pruning is particularly dear to Ludovic, as his own career has in a certain sense been shaped by the pruning competitions that are organised at departmental, regional and national levels. “I started when I was in my first year of study. I took part in my first departmental competition in Anjou, and I finished in the top five out of 200 participants. I then made the shortlist at regional level, and eventually went on to the national competition in Reims. Out of 380 to 400 participants, I finished 30th in the adult age group and took first place in my age group.”
Today, he still has fond memories of the occasion: “It gave me another perspective, that I try to pass on to our employees today. The idea is to give them a sense of what I want them to do, but they still have to bring their own ideas, because in the end they are the ones who are dealing with the vine. Each one of them contributes to making our wine.”
Learn more about Château Montlabert at chateau-montlabert.com.