Pruning is underway in northwest Michigan vineyards

A review of grapevine pruning, and upcoming virus management and enology workshop for successful grape growing and winemaking.

March is here, and for Michigan grape growers that means pruning is around the corner. Grapevine pruning is an annual practice where nearly 90 percent of the previous year’s growth is removed, but it is the most cost-effective method to maintain the vine form and control fruit and quantity. Seasoned growers and farm workers likely understand the counterintuitive concepts of pruning, but beginners may need a review to understand how removing a substantial amount of vine/canes will produce an optimum grape product.

There are two main types of pruning used on mature grapevines: cane- and spur-pruning. These two pruning methods differ in the number and length of retained canes that will be used to produce the coming year’s fruit. Typically, after cane-pruning a mature grapevine, nearly all previous year’s canes are pruned away with the exception of two to four fruitful canes. These retained canes are tied to the trellis wire, and the buds (nodes) on the retained canes will produce the current growing season’s shoots and fruit. Generally, after spur-pruning a mature grapevine, all canes from the previous year are pruned down to two to five buds (nodes) or cane extensions called spurs.

Pruned vines Pruned vines

Whole vine (A), tied cane (B) and close up of buds (C) on cane-pruned grapevine before bud break. Whole vine (D), tied cane (E) and close up of buds (F) on spur-pruned grapevine before bud break. 

Pruned vines Pruned vines

Whole vine (G), tied cane (H) and close up of buds (I) on cane-pruned grapevine after bud break. Whole vine (J), tied cane (K) and close up of buds (L) on spur-pruned grapevine after bud break.

Both pruning types have their advantages and disadvantages. For example, cane-pruning is more cost-intensive than spur-pruning because it requires annual manual removal of previous year’s fruiting cane followed by selecting and tying the coming year’s fruiting cane. Also, it is worth noting that during cane-pruning, there is a risk of knocking off or otherwise damaging buds when wrapping and tying canes on the wire, especially those that are tied later in the spring when buds are more fragile. Spur-pruning, on the other hand, does not share the same risk of bud damage and instead uses a semi-permanent cordon from which fruiting spurs originate and allows for safer manual pruning and also mechanized pruning. However, because spur-pruning utilizes only the most basal two to five buds per cane for fruiting, some cultivars with low basal bud fruitfulness do not reach their fruiting potential when they are spur-pruned.

Historically, growers have used cane-pruning in northwest Michigan vineyards because this technique has fewer above-ground vine/buds that are susceptible to damaging low temperatures during the dormant season. Furthermore, the 2014 and 2015 winters had extreme low temperatures caused by advective freeze events known as “Polar Vortices” that resulted in catastrophic grapevine damage across eastern North America. Research conducted during a two-year, post-vortex retraining study that evaluated how to best return vineyards to pre-damage crop production found that cane-pruning produced more mature fruit at lower cost than spur-pruning. These results show promise for using cane-pruning in Michigan’s short and variable growing season.

In the current labor climate, no matter which type of pruning is implemented, the limiting factor for most apple, cherry and grape producers to prune in a timely manner is labor availability. To address this limiting factor, Michigan State University Extension organized the 2018 Agricultural Labor Meeting on March 7, 2018, to cover issues including labor recruiting, legal updates, farm worker housing and child care, and food safety.

Since there have been no confirmed reports of significant grapevine bud damage due to cold, it is safe to assume northern Michigan vines will have normal bud break and a flush of shoot growth in May. Historically in northwest Michigan, grape buds break and release shoots in mid-May. At this time, shoots, leaves and flower clusters are susceptible to many viral pathogens that can cause a decline in productivity over the life of the vineyard.

View viticulture practice videos produced by Thomas Todaro covering grapevine pruning, canopy management, vine replacement after winter injury, winter protection of grapevines by hilling and cane burial.

2018 Wine Grape Spring Kickoff

Viruses are one key topic that will be addressed at the MSU Extension 2018 Wine Grape Spring Kickoff scheduled for April 13, 2018. Monica Cooper of the University of California Cooperative Extension and Agriculture and Natural Resources in Napa County, California, will offer one hour of vineyard virus management education. Early in her career, Cooper found a destructive Mediterranean caterpillar in a local vineyard that hadn’t before been seen in the United States. Her detection of European grapevine moth triggered state, federal and U.S. scientists to develop an action plan to limit the pest’s distribution.

This program will cover management practices to reduce or eliminate vineyard viruses (grapevine leafroll virus and red blotch) and virus vectors (mealy bugs, etc.); this information will assist grape producers to prepare equipment and labor to limit the negative impacts of viruses.

In addition to addressing vineyard virus management issues, Clark Smith, a world-renowned winemaker, consultant and respected innovator for his pioneering contribution to the winemaking world, will provide 4.5 hours of winemaking education to grape and wine producers. In the 1990s, Smith began Vinovation, which became the world’s largest winemaking consulting company, and developed the post-modern winemaking system that rejects the solution chemistry model of winemaking and instead focuses on building structure, integrating aroma and promoting living soils. His popular class on Fundamentals of Wine Chemistry has been attended by over 4,000 participants since 1984.

Smith is recognized as a leading authority on the enhancement of wine structure and a vocal proponent of living soil, and his “Postmodern Winemaking” book from U.C. Press was named Wine and Spirits Magazine’s 2013 Book of the Year.

Information and details of the 2018 Wine Grape Spring Kickoff can be found at “Registration is open for 2018 Northwest Michigan Wine Grape Spring Kickoff on April 13.”

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