I suspect that few people know of Wölffer’s trellis sampler, but I’m sure that it’s unique on the island, perhaps in all of New York State. Located on the south side of the winery in the main building, it has examples of eight of the principle trellis systems used in vineyards around the world, only one of which is widely used in Long Island. Viewing them is almost like taking a vineyard tour around the world with regard to the different ways that vines are trained. There are compelling reasons for using one in preference to another, depending on the country, the climate, the prevailing laws of a region, and custom or tradition.
Needless to say, the trellis sampler inspired me to look into the trellis and training systems more deeply, because they are central to what a wine-grape vineyard is all about.
Regardless of the trellis used, the vines must be trained to it, and there are two kinds of training: spur and cane. Some trellises are more amenable to one or the other. This will be indicated below. The entire point of the training and trellis systems is that they significantly aid in helping the vines’ canes and shoot develop in a way such that the amount of light and air can be controlled. In addition, trellises allow for effective canopy management. Vines leaves need sunlight for photosynthesis and the grape clusters benefit from solar exposure as well, but not too much. Typically, the vine rows will be oriented to catch the maximum sunlight early in the day (so facing east), in the afternoon (facing west), or for the fullest amount of sunlight, by facing south. Much depends on matters of aspect and slope of the land and finding the optimum exposure.
The movement of air should be facilitated so as to avoid the development of different molds, fungi, and rot and to dry the grapes after a rain. The amount of shade can further be controlled by pulling leaves if needed. Finally, the trellis and training should provide a fruit zone for easy maintenance and harvesting.
Not to add to the confusion, but one must bear in mind that a spur-trained vine is cane-pruned, whereas a cane-trained vine is spur-pruned. (Vine pruning deserves its own explanation, but not here.)
Vine training, which is what trellises are for, has been around since the beginning of viticulture, and was employed by the Ancient Egyptians, Ancient Greeks, the Romans, and medieval monasteries. Without trellising, grapevines will climb and cling onto anything that can be reached by their shoots, or tendrils. Nevertheless, this is a kind of rudimentary spur training called Alberate.
The result can look like a mess, as in the case of this Sangiovese vine climbing into an olive tree, and it can be difficult to harvest the grapes or effectively treat the vines with chemicals to control pests and disease. Nevertheless, it is very easy to maintain. This example was found in a small vineyard-cum-olive-grove in Strada-in-Chianti, just outside Florence.
Wine produced from these grapes is, needless to say, no better than ordinary table wine at best.
Another ancient and still widely-used untrellised vine training is called Gobelet (“goblet” or vase”), also known as bush vine (Australia). It’s history can be traced back to the ancient Romans and even the early Egyptians. It was widely employed in California in the 19th Century and some vineyards there still carry on the practice. It is especially popular in Spain, where it is called en vaso. Gobelet-trained vines are head trained, which is to say spur-pruned close to the ground, as can be seen in the photo above of a 100-year-old Tempranillo vine in Rioja. It can be either staked or allowed to grow free-standing.
One ought to bear in mind that the vine-training system does not necessarily follow the design of the trellis so much as the trellis should be selected for a given training system. Often the training system takes the name of the trellis, but it doesn’t necessarily follow.
The trellis is merely the arrangement of the posts, stakes, and wires, while there can be multiple variations to how a given trellis is used for training. The trellis, in other words, is merely a support for the training system. The very simplest trellis is merely a stake in the ground to which a vine is tied with minimal training; the simplest training system is the Gobelet or vase, discussed above, which requires no trellis.
One more factor to be taken into consideration is the species and varieties that are to be trellised. Native American vines (e.g., V. labrusca) and hybrids (vinifera x non-vinifera) tend to be down-growing, whereas V. vinifera varieties grown naturally upwards. The training should therefore follow the natural inclinations of the vines and trellises should be chosen for their suitability to the variety.
Getting back to Wölffer’s, if one walks around the building from the patio, the first of the seven trellis samples encountered is the pergola, the origins of which are Italian, shown below:
The Pergola is largely found in Argentina, Italy, and Spain. The sign tells us that its advantages are, “Shades ground in hot, arid climates to preserve moisture. Shades fruit from direct sunlight.” (The word comes from the Late Latin pergula, or projecting eave, but comes into English usage via Italian.) This kind of pergola (closed) is also called tendone.
It’s also good for picnics and as an ornamental device to provide shade, cover a walkway, or offer a processional path for a wedding. Usually, for that kind of function it’s referred to as an “arbor”.
The pergola is designed for making the vines grow well in hot, arid climates, and the fruit grows directly overhead, awkward for harvesting by hand—imagine how tiring it would be—but if the fruit has been trained to hang down far enough, it is also amenable to machine harvesting, as can be seen in the diagram opposite:
Next is the Geneva Double Curtain / GDC (above), which, according to its sign, is found in “New York State [originally for] Concord grapes, and for table and juice grapes worldwide.” Actually, the GDC can be used for wine grapes, but its special advantage is that grape bunches can hang free, which is desirable for table grapes. Table grape clusters are also larger and heavier than vinifera ones, so the GDP makes more sense for those grapes. (It is called Geneva because it was developed at the Geneva–New York–Agriculture Experimental Station in the 1960s.)
The system shown in Fig. 1 (below) utilizes a 4-foot cross arm on the trellis to double the amount of canopy per row and a single wire about 3 feet high to support the trunk. Vines are trained to alternate sides of the 6-foot high trellis. Each vine has a 6-8 foot cordon (a permanent branch on either side of the main trunk, or trunks that are secured by two to four wraps around the support wire with a wire tie at its end. Each cordon has 10-12 short (4-6 bud) canes evenly spaced along its length. A renewal spur should be kept as next year’s replacement for each of the short canes.
The Lyre trellis is a variation on the Geneva Double Curtain and the Scott Henry (spur-training). As the sign tells us, its use is rare (and confined to the New World), but it has the advantage of opening up the canopy. It accommodates overly-vigorous vines that would have problems with respect to shade, by allowing good air circulation and sunlight penetration. Vine vigor, by the way, refers to the growth of foliage or canopy.
The Hill Post/Mosel (or Mosel Arch) trellis is very simple. As the sign says, “Found: On the steep slopes in Germany and the Rhône Valley of France. Advantage: Supports vines on terrain that cannot be trellised [otherwise].” Each vine has its own stake and two canes bent into a heart shape. Cane training is used with this.
The High-wire Cordon is a very simple stake-and-wire system in which the shoots are draped over the top wire to hang over and allow the fruit to hang pendulously. It is fine for table and juice grapes and native American wine-grape varieties. Its primary advantage is low cost and maintenance.
Pendelbogen (aka European Loop or Arch-Cane) is a training system that is used in Germany and Austria as well as the Northwest of the US. It offers the advantages of easy tying and of condensing the number of shoots. A variant of the Guyot Double system, it promotes better sap distribution with more fruit-bearing shoots consolidated on the center buds.
Scott Henry/Smart-Dyson are two variations on a training system that’s used most widely in Oregon and Australia. Its advantage is that it “Opens up the canopy and improves fruit quality and yield from over-vigorous vines.” The names are as interesting as the systems, which differ significantly from all the other trellises in the Wölffer sampler. Smart-Dyson (S-D) is named after international viticulturist Richard Smart and John Dyson, a well-known grape grower with vineyards in New York (Millbrook) and California. Scott Henry is named for the Oregon grape grower and former aerospace engineer who developed it. Henry’s technology is basically a system of two vines in one location, one high, and one low. Smart-Dyson uses the same high-low approach, but with a single, spur-pruned cordon-trained vine. The differences are shown in the diagrams below:
The three rows shown above represent the Meter by Meter trellis, which is found in “Bordeaux, Burgundy, and other regions of France.” These are used for high-density (1 m. x 1 m.) plantings that are required by the AOC laws that define almost everything that is permitted in the vineyards of the various regions of France. Such density would be highly problematic for machinery but works well for manually working the vines.
Before Long Island vineyards began to use Vertical Shoot Positioning (VSP, discussed immediately below) most used the Umbrella Kniffin system to train the vine with a single or double trunk extending to the upper wire. After the second growing season, the vineyardist would select two or four canes growing from near the top of the trunk for arms and prune them to 10 to 20 buds. That was followed by cutting back two other canes to 2 or 3 buds for renewal spurs. The arms would be looped over the top wire, bringing them down obliquely to the bottom wire and tied. Each following winter the arms would be replaced by canes from the renewal spurs. The system proved not to be good for harvesting the grapes, for the bunches would not be hanging at a uniform level.
The training system used in the Wölffer vineyards is called VSP (Vertical Shoot Positioning) Virtually all the vineyards in Long Island use it. It employs a Vertical Trellis, which is essentially three wires running the length of a row. The bottom wire is called the cordon wire, to which the trunk cordons or arms of the vine are tied, and the upper two wires are used to tie the vertical shoots. This is ideal for vinifera varieties as they tend to grow upwards. In the picture below, the bare canes and shoots make it easy to see how the vines are trained, in this case a double cordon, with all the shoots rising vertically. While the VSP can be either cane or spur-trained, the version we see here is spur trained.
One can see that the cordon, or part of the trunk that is trained horizontally in two directions, is tied to the bottom wire, while the shoots are trained to go vertically up, tied to the send and third wires, the topmost having been set at a height of between 60” and 70” (150 to 175 cm.) This makes it easier to pull leaves and thin the clusters, while the fruit zone will run along the cordon level, at a level that makes it easy to either hand-pick or machine-pick the clusters at harvest time.
The picture above shows the fruit zone as it looks when the first buds appear.
VSP is used primarily in coastal regions like Long Island where the expected vigor of the vines is low to moderate. However, it is widely used wherever vinifera is grown, including Bordeaux, Burgundy, Alsace, Germany, and New Zealand. Nevertheless, with a bit of effort many hybrids can be trained to VSP as happens in the Hudson River Region.
As shown in the diagram at right, the fruit zone can be shaped horizontally just above the cordon wire, with the shoot growing straight up above them so that their leaves get the best exposure to the sun, while trimming back some of the leaves that might otherwise cover the bunches in the fruit zone so that the grapes get some solar exposure.
Mechanical harvesting is possible with VSP systems and special machines are designed for this. They are virtually the direct opposite of the pergola harvesters, which fit beneath and within the pergola. Harvesters of this kind require very taut wires to keep the fruit at an even level; there are even computerized wire tightener machines. (These, of course, are very expensive in the aggregate, as there must be one for each row; only very large mechanized operations can afford them).
For VSP, the machine straddles the rows and can be adjusted for the height of the fruit zone (this machine illustrated below is not used at Wölffer’s, which only uses hand harvesting):
The spacing between rows is critical for using machinery. But it’s very important for a number of other reasons. For optimum exposure to sunlight, the height of the vines will affect the amount of sun that falls on the rows behind. Therefore the spacing should be such that the vines’ shadows never cover the canopy or fruit zone. Another determinant for row spacing is the use of machinery. Rows should be wide enough to accommodate a harvester, a tractor, or any other machinery that may be used in a vineyard. The meter by meter system is scarcely amenable to machine work, whereas the VSP system clearly is. (Note: in Europe and elsewhere, this is usually known as the vertical trellis.)
An important part of nearly all trellis systems is the end post, usually of wood, about 4 to 6” in diameter and about 6 to 7 feet tall for VSP. As can be seen in the picture, the end post is put in the ground to a depth of about three feet and canted away from the row it ends. This is one approach. The post is given further rigidity by the use of a guy wire the terminus of which is staked deeply into the ground, the better to resist the very strong pull of a properly-taut series of shoot and cordon wires. The posts are also used for identifying the variety planted in a given row, usually with just the initial letter or two, as in CH for Chardonnay, CB for Chenin Blanc, etc.
At Wölffer’s roses are planted at the ends of each row, not merely for the obvious aesthetic result, but for the very practical reason that roses attract not just bees but other insects that also prey on vineyard pests.
The wires running from post to post and to the stakes in between will slacken and need to be tightened from time to time—to the end posts, not the stakes. There are even special tools for that. The vines are then tied to the wires—trained vineyard workers are needed for that.
It should be apparent that the preparation and planting of a vineyard is very demanding of time, expense, and labor. Preparing the ground first is a topic worth discussing separately, but it isn’t necessarily visible to the casual eye. The trellis, laden with its vines and fruit, is the most visible component of the vineyard. The maintenance of the vines is itself only visible when a visitor sees workers or machines in the rows, spraying, thinning, harvesting, and so on. It is one of the most demanding forms of horticulture that there is, but the rewards, in the form of the wine made from the fruit grown in the vineyard and the money to be made from its sale make it all worth the effort.
It is for these reasons that a skilled and experienced vineyard manager is needed to obtain the best fruit possible from so elaborate a system.
While the trellis and training systems shown and discussed above include the most important and widely-used, there are far more than this. Others are, for the most part, merely variations on the themes set out above.
Cornell University Cooperative Extension Nassau County, “Home Grounds Fact Sheet-Grapes: Culture and Pruning.” January 2009. This is a downloadable PDF that focuses on using the Four-Armed Kniffin and Umbrella Kniffin systems.
Cox, Jeff. From Vines to Wines: The Complete Guide to Growing Grapes and Making Your Own Wine. North Adams, MA: Storey Press, 1999.
Robinson, Jancis, MW, editor. The Oxford Companion to Wine, 3rd edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006
Stevenson, Tom. The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia: The Classic Reference to the Wines of the World, 5th edition. New York: Dorling Kindersley, 2011.
See also my post on Wölffer Estate, published in July 2013.