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You've Got The Look!...
by Jeff Cox

All great vineyards anywhere in the world have a similar look, according to Doug Fletcher, vineyard manager and wine maker at Chimney Rock Winery in the Stags Leap sub-appellation of the Napa Valley.

And the look is this: the trunk is divided into two horizontal cordons, or arms. From these cordons new shoots arise from buds left during the dormant  pruning. When the shoots reach three feet, they stop growing, or slow down significantly. Each shoot has 10 to 15 leaves, just one cluster of fruit (or two at most, and any second cluster is removed). Then the vine is in what Fletcher calls "balance." That is, the new shoots begin to exhaust the water supply when they reach three feet long, trellised up vertically above the cordons.

So, vines on a dry, well-drained hillside may have only eight shoots—four on each arm, spaced eight inches apart, while vines in a low spot that has plenty of ground water may need 12 feet of cordon on each side of the trunk, with a total of 18 to 24 shoots. The more shoots, the more water the roots need to transport to them. Conversely, the more water in the ground, the more shoots are needed to exhaust it about the time of veraison--the optimum time for a little water stress, Fletcher says. In all cases, the roots are balanced with the number of shoots so that the shoots stop growing about at about three feet in length.

How does one achieve this in the vineyard? One starts by making a stab at it. On flat ground, try putting in vines at four foot spacings, with two, two-foot cordons per vine. Leave about one shoot every eight inches, or about six shoots per vine. If the shoots grow vigorously right past three feet, remove every other vine and extend the cordons to four feet each, or eight feet per vine. Leave shoots every eight inches, for about 12 shoots. If they are still too vigorous, remove every other vine to increase the cordons to 12 feet, or 24 feet per vine. At eight inch shoot spacings, you'll have 36 shoots per vine. At some point, the roots and shoots will be in balance, and the shoots will stop growing at about three feet. The time from veraison to grape maturity will shorten, quality will increase, and production will remain about the same whether you're on four-foot spacings or 24-foot spacings.

Fletcher says that when he began growing grapes at Chimney Rock, all his best fruit came, as would be expected, from the hillsides, and he'd sell off the valley fruit in bulk. Now he says his best fruit comes from the valley floor, due to getting the vines in balance. Sounds like a technique every grape grower should keep in mind, especially where there's a lot of soil moisture during the growing season.

© 2000 Jeff Cox


More Good Reading from Jeff Cox

"From Vines to Wines"
The Complete Guide to Growing Grapes and Making Your Own Wine"

Jeff Cox is the author of 13 gardening books including From Vines to Wines.

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