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History of Grapevine Pruning

According to legend, a donkey introduced the practice of pruning to humans: somewhere in Palestine, the creature nibbled at a vine... to the dismay of the villagers, it was this vine that produced particularly large fruit! Thus it dawned on the villagers that pruning their vines might be a good idea... and so it began. As amusing as the past may be, every amateur-vintner does need to consider present day technologies and use contemporary pruning methods. Here you will find out why...

Nowadays, newly planted vines are almost always grafted, usually on vigorous rootstocks such as 5 BB and 125 AA. While in the past the non-grafted grapevines required large planting areas with heaps of cow manure and slurry, today's grafted vines are extremely 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 ending with 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 on sticking with these treatment methods and not loosing track of everything, risks ending up on a psychiatrist's couch and missing 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 don't prune enough. Anyone who observes his/her vine closely over the years will quickly discover which pruning technique the vine responds to 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