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Reviewed by EREZ GORDON

Aside from those for whom wine making is a full time occupation, most of us have scant involvement with the journey from grape to wine. In some ways this is ideal, as the product that eventually finds its way into a wine bottle tastes better when flavoured with myth and tradition. If we do become involved it is during harvest when vineyards around the world cry out for extra hands to help haul in the precious berries. In the late summer or early autumn, while the sun still shines, thousands of interested parties, hobbyists, wine buffs, restaurateurs, family and friends, armed with secateurs, risk their digits to take the fruit of the vine on time and with care.

Those romantic images we find so familiar - grizzled old men with overflowing cane baskets on their backs, winemakers up to their calves in crushed grapes, long tables laden with food for hungry pickers and festive bacchanalian feasts to celebrate the end of a successful harvest - all have to do with harvesting the grape. They all involve the very final stage of the growing process. In Portugal the pickers at certain wineries construct a vegetal virgin effigy from vine leaves as a part of their end of harvest celebrations. They burn this in homage to the powers that watch over the vineyards. All these are powerful and emotive pictures though not necessarily true in these days of mechanised harvesting, professional pickers and giant wine corporations. Still they are intrinsic to what we understand wine to be.

But what then? With the wine in tank or barrel and the winemakers filling their days with careful observations, what of the vineyard itself? The scene of bustling activity becomes, like the vines themselves, dormant. Fields of vines, leafless, stretch their barren branches across exposed trellis wires, lending the vineyard an empty, naked look. At this time the vigneron begins to look forward. From this point all eyes are toward the next vintage and the work required to produce next season’s fruit. It is the cold heart of winter and therefore it is pruning time. If you think a vineyard looks naked when the leaves fall off, it is nothing compared to how it appears once the pruners are done with it.

In winery terms a long branch, filled with shoots or buds, is called a cane. A cane that has been pruned back to just a few buds, usually two, is called a spur. All those canes and spurs which produced fruit for the previous vintage must now be lopped off, pruned back, wrapped down and readied for new growth. It feels criminal to take the secateurs to woody cane that has proved reliable but that’s just it. It has done its work and now a new cane will be trained along the wire to become the base of next season’s new growth and fruit while the spur will grow to become the cane for the following year.

At this time decisions are made that will impact on how the vine behaves over the next year. Prune badly and the canopy may block the sun from reaching the fruit; leave the wrong spur and it may not shoot. It's no wonder vineyard managers don’t call in the Family, Friends and Associates Brigade. This is an important time. It is a period of hope and decisions, of planning and commitment. Only those who understand the intrinsic nature of the vine and the vineyard will stand for hours in wind and rain steadily snipping away at useless canes and shoots, reshaping the vineyard.

During a lunch break at Bindi vineyard near Macedon, at the beginning of July, winemaker Michael Dhillon discusses the weather in past years with Kelvin, a local who comes in to help with the tying down of the canes onto the wires. The only people to prune the vines at Bindi are Michael and his father, so intent are they on making sure the job is done correctly. Kelvin tells us about the time it was so cold he had to go inside every half hour to warm up before facing another stint outside. “It snows at least once a year up here” says Dhillon. “It only sticks about one year in four but it snows every year.” Kelvin owns up to pruning in the snow and Dhillon looks at him with a mixture awe and incredulity. “Not me” he says. “I’d be inside in a flash”.

Asked what the hardest part of the pruning season is Dhillon is quick to reply. “After the adrenaline and emotional high of vintage when you are required to work ridiculous hours and all your energy pours into seeing a year’s growth safely off the vine and into the winery, it’s very hard to muster the energy and desire to see you through a long pruning season. It’s like being dropped firmly on your backside and told to start again. But by the same token, starting again is refreshing in its own way.”

Avner Ben-Arieh, vineyard manager at Gembrook Hills Vineyard in Gembrook approaches the pruning season as a solid task to be completed by budburst. At Gembrook Hills their north facing slopes are blanketed with Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc vines. The latter, an almost laughably vigorous plant, requires a different pruning than Chardonnay or Pinot Noir. Its ability to grow back from almost nothing makes it a prime subject for the novice pruner such as yours truly. Even so, faced with a confusion of canes and having to decide which cane and spur to leave, proved as difficult a business choice as any I could make when you consider that each vine is an integral part of the vineyard’s business plan.

The rules for pruning the Sauvignon Blanc vine were simple. Leave one strong green cane that will reach all the way along the wire to the next vine and one spur. The cane must be above the spur on the vine, to keep the crown of the vine in more or less the same position each year and to ensure that the cane receives as much of the vine’s nutrients as possible. A reckless choice will see the crown move away from the wires on the trellis or the spur face the sunless side of the vine and a reduction in growth and fruit quality. Every decision has its consequences.

It's a demanding task and Ben-Arieh’s hands are covered in cuts and abrasions. Yet, despite the odd annoying cane slapping him in the face first thing on a winter’s morning, he sees it as the foundation of a good vintage.

Pruning is done for a variety of reasons. One is to maintain the shape and size of the vines. A plant as vigorous as a grapevine will quickly sprawl if not controlled. Also, too many canes will produce excess grapes while the nutrients in a vine remain finite. Reducing the amount of fruit a vine produces i.e. the yield, will ensure better fruit quality and in turn a better wine. The canes and spurs that are left springing from the crown of the vine are then trained along the wires or trellising system. Different grape varieties and different climates demand different trellis philosophies and the way a vine is pruned relates directly to that. The variables are many and the philosophies associated are as many again. There is not always a right or wrong way. It all comes down to the decisions made in the vineyard. Lastly, like anything else in wine industry, aesthetics play an important part. A good looking, well-maintained vineyard reflects the attitudes of the winemaker and vigneron and keeping the rows clipped and controlled declares to anyone who visits their intention of producing the best possible wine.

A vineyard worker standing alone, rugged up against the cold, secateurs in hand, can only dream of those warm summer days when the spindly plant before him will stand with a bright green canopy and a treasure of plump ripe fruit. But now, in the heart of winter, it is all potential, all hope, all possibility.

The pruning season lasts all the way to budburst in September. As the weather warms up, the buds left on the canes will burst open with new green shoots, the first colour of the new vintage. This signals the end of the vineyard’s winter sleep and the beginning of a new set of tasks for the vigneron.