Grapevines grow upwards towards sunlight. But this isn’t necessarily obvious when you walk through a vineyard. Each shoot is uniform in length; generally, no taller than 6 feet.
Canopy Management 101
There’s a reason for this: to prevent one vineyard row from shading the next. Uniform sun exposure means fruit will ripen at an even pace within the same block. We don’t want to worry about fruit from one vine being overripe while the next is green and unripe. We’re aiming for uniform ripeness.
The magic ratio is 1:1. In other words, the height of the canopy (or shoots) should not exceed the width of the row. The solution is often to cut the tips of the shoots, what’s known in the industry as hedging or shoot-tipping. This isn’t done with pruners, but rather with what’s best described as a chain-saw attached to a tractor. (It is more sophisticated than a mechanical version of Leatherface, though.)
However, hedging eventually perpetuates the problem it is meant to solve. Shoot-tipping stimulates additional shoot growth (specifically laterals), resulting in more shading. This then leads to another round of hedging, stimulating even more – well, you get the idea.
Which brings us to palissage. With this technique, shoots are trained back down into the canopy by hand – not trimmed. Palissage is much more time consuming, but advantageously slows down shoot growth, reduces the number of laterals, and focuses the vine’s energy on ripening fruit. And no tractor passes are required, reducing our carbon footprint.
We’re trialing palissage for the first time this year on both Phantom Creek Vineyard and Sundial Vineyard. Thus far, we’re encouraged with the results. According to Ross, palissage-treated vines at our estate vineyards show better overall balance when compared to hedged vines due to reduced vigour and lateral growth. It may also have the added benefit of retaining higher acidity levels, providing more freshness and vibrancy in the resulting wines.
But let’s not forget another reason for hedging: aesthetics. Vines are often carefully manicured, with no leaf out of place. So, don’t be surprised if our vineyards look slightly different. There’s a natural reason.