Visit a few vineyard web pages and you come away with the impression that close planting of vines, the so-called "European style," is very much in vogue. Close planting, for purposes of this discussion (and we hope it will be a discussion) is defined as four feet (1.25 meters). Advocates cite fruit quality as the principal motivating force behind their decision to close plant. Some are using the split canopy or lyre method of pruning and find no need for more than four feet between vines. The distance between rows (aisle width) is dictated by the type of equipment we are going to be moving through the vineyard. But, underneath the wire, we take license to do as we wish in terms of vine spacing. This discretion serves as the basis for firmly held opinions based upon fact and myth. On this page we will look at a few facts, a few myths and welcome your input of both.
Availability of land in western Europe is the principal reason why people of European descent are found living on other continents. We can assume that all post-Roman vineyard layout was also influenced by land scarcity. In Europe, famous vineyards are sometimes found on hillsides which any reasonable person would deem to be unsuitable for any agricultural use. Vine spacing on these slopes is dictated in part by two considerations: (1) the vines should be planted close together to help discourage a landslide, and (2) the vineyard must be hand worked, so aisles need only be wide enough for the passage of a human being. On more technologically friendly terrain, vineyard aisles might have been somewhat wider to permit use of a horse for cultivation and spraying. When it came time to move from horse to tractor, the French responded by designing the enjambeur, or "high tractor" to fit the existing vineyards.
The use of vineyard wire preceded the enjambeur by only a few years, and many vineyards in Europe are still "wireless." The absence of wire to help keep shoots and fruit up in the sunlight and above the rot-producing soil required training methods to produce self-supporting vines. This is why we see "umbrella training" of riesling, big, strong cordons for Cabernet Sauvignon and the knee level training of the Gamay Noir (Oh, my aching back!). Pursuit of these training methods, combined with the historically narrow aisle, resulted in vines occupying less square footage and yielded more space for planting.
Third, economic consideration had to be given to the site where the vine was growing. Four foot spacing as opposed to six foot spacing in Chambertin, for example, would be expected to yield a 50% increase in the number of bottles of wine which could be labeled "Chambertin" and the resultant increase in revenue for the grower. The combined influence of these factors is how we conceived the "European style".
Where land scarcity, topography, site prestige, and pre-machine age technology are not major influences on vineyard design, one would expect the practice of close planting to be abandoned. Why, then, are we moving toward, or returning to, close planting? If it's a fad, it is one that requires a 50% greater capital outlay for plants and a permanent commitment by the grower (considerations that convince you that fads have no place in viticulture).
Email your response from the GGN Home Page.
Opinion 1. We don't always have the luxury of searching for our ideal vineyard site. We plant in what we have available. When conditions are less than ideal, such as two feet of red clay and glacial rock on top of good soil (alas, our circumstance), perhaps the vine will live and produce, but not thrive. Perhaps a small vine of modest vigor is the way to go. This may be accomplished with rootstock, if the vines are grafted, and with competition from close planted neighbors.
Opinion 2. John Behrs, Grand Junction, Colorado. Click here.
Opinion 3. This space reserved for you!
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