Though wine grapes thrive across the globe, vineyards often look strikingly different. Vines can appear as tidy rows or sprawling jungles. Some creep close to the ground while others stretch their tendrils overhead.
Grapevines are remarkably adaptive. Over centuries, humans have learned to set up vines to produce fruit in differing environments, from flat land and steep slopes to blazing heat and cool northerly light.
Training a vine is an art, a way to coax it into producing the optimal fruit to be turned into wine. A vine’s natural tendency is to focus growth on ample vegetation, allowing it to twine its tendrils and climb. Left to its own devices, a vine will only bear fruit once its shoots reach the top of a tree canopy. Indeed, old paintings show peasants harvesting grapes with tall ladders.
Modern vineyards are planted, pruned and cultivated in intricate ways based on many factors. What’s the climate? Is the soil fertile or poor? Is the site steep, sloping or flat? Is mechanization possible, and if so, to what degree? What is the desired yield and wine style?
Regional laws can also come into play. Certain European appellations require particular training methods, like Champagne with its Guyot, Cordon or Taille Chablis systems or Meursault with Cordon and Guyot Simple.
Planting density, direction and canopy height are also taken into account.
The most efficient vineyards are laid out in wide rows that accommodate machinery to prune, trim and harvest. However, this layout is only possible in more fertile soils on flat or gently sloping land. Vines are spaced to allow a generous crop load and are geared toward a good yield of quality fruit.
Many training methods evolved before tractors were invented. One of the most common is the bush vine. It grows without the support of a stake or trellis, and it’s head-pruned to form a kind of goblet shape. With their wide spacing, bush vines are ideal for warm, arid regions, because they can be dry farmed. However, they require a lot of acreage and skilled pruners. They also make mechanization impossible.
While considered old-fashioned, bush vines are prized because they can survive without expensive irrigation. As Bill Moore, who grows Zinfandel in Napa’s Coombsville AVA for Robert Biale Vineyards, says about his sinuous vines planted in 1905, “they are no drip junkies.”
Single-stake vines are another ancient way to grow grapes. The vines are planted close together on individual posts: “This way of training goes back to Roman times,” says Ernst Loosen in Germany’s Mosel Valley. “Single stakes made cultivation on the steep slopes easier. The density also made most of the limited vineyard space most farmers had. This way, they could increase the yield. However, the method is labor-intense, costly and, in my experience, I cannot really see a qualitative benefit in the fruit compared to trellised vines.”
Planting on steep slopes makes access difficult, and all but prevents mechanization. Egon Müller, who owns single-stake parcels in the Saar Valley’s historic Scharzhofberg vineyard, is convinced that the high-planting density favors the mesoclimate conducive to botrytis, the noble rot that befalls his Riesling vines almost every year.
Another traditional method is to train vines overhead in a pergola.
“Vernatsch and Lagrein were the traditional grapes in our area,” says Martin Foradori Hofstätter, owner of J. Hofsätter in Alto Adige, Italy. “Both are high-yielding and vigorous, and needed strong support. The pergola was ideal. Once grapes like Pinot Noir arrived in the 19th century, people stuck to the training method they knew”
Hofstätter prefers to use modern trellis systems.
“The pergola’s dense leaf canopy overhead hinders ventilation and solar radiation, while limited mechanization makes it expensive,” he says. “I guess the pergola will eventually vanish, but there is one abiding advantage: vine age.”
He thus preserves his oldest, most precious Pinot Noir vineyards in pergolas.
However, in coastal areas like in Spain’s Rias Baixas or on the island of Madeira, the pergola training method—called parra and latada there—makes the most of sea breezes, allowing the natural airflow to ventilate the free-hanging grapes and prevent fungal disease.
Some vineyards at high altitude are very windy, so the vines are trained close to the ground, as they are at Jardim de Serra on Madeira, some 2,600 feet above sea level. On the Greek island of Santorini, Assyrtiko vines are typically trained into giristi, or baskets, so the strong winds cannot damage tender shoots. Some giristi even use little banks of stones to break winds.
The most prevalent method today is the modern wire trellis, but numerous training options are still possible. A vine can have permanent cordons or annual canes, on one or both sides. If the shoots are just trained upward, these systems are commonly known as VSP, or “vertical shoot positioning.” This method makes canopy management easy and efficient.
Canopies can also be divided up and down and on either side of the wire, channeling soil fertility and vine vigor. Some trellis shapes evolved to suit the idiosyncrasies of certain grape varieties like the Taille Chablis for Chardonnay or the Guyot for Pinot Noir. Each setup takes into account the fruitful buds found in different parts along the shoot. The number of buds left after pruning, a highly governed factor in European regulations, determines the yield.
Climate, soil fertility as well as water availability and retention are key factors in planting density. Vines cannot ripen a huge crop in cooler climates, so they’re densely planted. Each vine has fewer bunches to ripen and ample leaves to photosynthesize.
Warmer climates can support a higher crop, especially when irrigated, so they can be spaced wider. Balance of vine and site is everything. Famed regions like Bordeaux and Burgundy have up to 10,000 vines per hectare. Ambitious growers elsewhere tried to emulate this.
That crucial balance can differ depending on climates and soils. Henschke’s Hill of Grace vineyard in Australia’s Eden Valley, which dates back to the 19th century, has fewer than 1,000 vines per hectare, and it makes some of the world’s best Shiraz.
The direction of planting is also important. Rows can favor morning or evening sun, or try to minimize the difference.
The next time you visit or see vineyards, pay attention to the way it’s planted, pruned and designed. A lot of thought has gone into creating a balance just right for the place and the vine.