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History of Grapevine Pruning

According to legend, a donkey introduced the practice of pruning to people: apparently somewhere in Palestine, the said creature nibbled at a vine much to the horror of the villagers! However, when this vine produced particularly large fruit, the villagers got the idea to start pruning their vines from then on. As amusing as the past may appear, every hobby-vintner needs to reflect on present day technologies and use contemporary pruning methods. Why, you will read here.

Nowadays, newly planted vines are almost always grafted, usually on vigorous vine stock such as 5 BB and 125 AA. While in bygone times the non-grafted grapevines required large planting areas with heaps of cow manure and slurry, today's grafted vines are rather too vigorous and need to be treated differently. Here you can check whether your vine has this particular quality. 


The historic varieties produced fruit mostly by being cane pruned, a pruning form which tends to exhaust the vine. Due to the weaker growth, each side shoot position on the stem framework had to be gradually developed over three years, starting with spur pruning, then switching to rod pruning and ultimately to cane pruning, which meant that the vine produced fruit only every 3 years. All side shoot positions on the vine had to undergo this lagged rotation, which basically was an "alternating pruning method" and certainly not easier than contemporary techniques.


Furthermore, each wine-growing region had its very own training and pruning systems. Only since about 1930 did the techniques become standardised here. 


The main grapevine pruning occurs in winter. Old books convey the impression that fruit would only be produced by continuously snipping the vines also in summer. They painstakingly promoted the removal or at least the shortening of any axillary shoots growing from the leaf axils. Maybe this was necessary for the historic, non fungus-resistant varieties, however, anyone who insists to stick to these treatment methods and not loose track of everything, risks ending up on a psychiatrist's couch and miss out on the harvest!...... Indeed it is now recognised that  these axillary shoots are of nutritional benefit for the vine; alternatively new varieties are bred with fewer axillary shoots, which solves this problem.


Vine pruning is a topic that continues to cause heated and often emotionally charged debate to this day! What proves successful for certain varieties in one region, may be completely rejected as nonsense elsewhere. Luckily, the grapevine is a flexible plant, which can be easily manipulated, and which, even after the most radical pruning, will still grow willingly. The biggest and most common mistake in vine pruning is that people actually don't prune enough. Anyone who observes his/ her vine closely over the years will get to know fast as to which pruning technique the vine responds best and how it may need correcting.

Historic "alternating pruning technique": 3 side shoot positions on a small vine, which are alternately pruned first to spurs (a), then to rods (b) and finally to canes (c).
Historic viticulture
One of the many regional historic training forms, here from Lauterbach / Hessen
Historic viticulture
Grapevine consistently cane pruned, illustration from around 1870.
Former viticulture