One of my favorite college courses was far from the study of the inter-workings of the financial world and number crunching pursuit of predicting a complex economic system (futile as it is, given the unpredictability of humans in action, but that’s an entirely different topic). To the contrary, this course was across the campus in a building filled with works of literature and fiction. It was here that my mind was able to escape to Yoknapatawhpa County with an unbelievable southern family, to floating down the mighty Mississippi River with an adventurous (albeit naïve) young boy and his much older companion, to being a stowaway aboard an old wooden ship witnessing a captain hell-bent on slaying a whale and the cosmic irony that plays out.
While reading through that timeless tale by Melville, I still remember the sense of relief when our professor told us that we could skip the chapters on the anatomy of a whale. A story about adventures at sea with captivating characters and continuous action is edge-of-the-seat type stuff. Chapters on sciency terms describing a whale’s anatomy from tail to blow-hole are not.
I repeat: I am not a scientist. However, in our pursuit of learning all things grape and wine related, there comes a time when it is necessary to know some of the less exciting details. It is as this point that I offer you the easy way out and in the spirit of Moby Dick, feel free to skip the following section detailing the anatomy of the plant. There is no shame in it.
Roots: We may as well start where everything else started, from the very dust of the ground. The roots of the grape could be the hardest working and most resilient extension of the entire plant. Roots will search deep and wide for water and nutrients. It is for this reason that grapes do the best in some of the most inhospitable environments. Alluvial plains filled with a few feet of black dirt are where grapes fair the poorest. Granted, a person can grow massive quantities of grapes, but they will not be of the potential of their harder working siblings up on the hill. While it is true that the majority of the root system of a grape is within 2 feet of the top of the soil, some of the root system will spread deeper, and I have even heard legends of very old vines with roots descending to depths of up to 20 feet!
Trunk: The vertical part of the vine that extends from the base of the plant to the trellis wire. The trunk looks more like a shabby stick for the first few years, but will grow and harden in the same manner as an ordinary tree trunk. A trunk can become quite thick and as it ages, new growth that offshoots can be used to replace it.
Cordon: This is the horizontal extension of the trunk that spreads out in both directions along the trellis wire. This resembles (and is commonly referred to) as “arms”. It takes a few years to establish the cordon and for the trunk to mature to a level that it can supply the nutrients required to grow the grape clusters that will eventually extend from the cordon.
Now, these three terms describe the easiest parts of the plant to understand. If you drive by a vineyard in late winter or early spring, you will see a prime example of the trunk and cordon. It will look like the vineyard is dead and all this is left is field of wooden “T”s. The plants are actually in their dormancy during this time, and the hardening off of the wood protects the vital system from root to cordon. From the cordon, things get very interesting.
Buds: This is the swelling that occurs at the area known as a “node” on a spur. This is where it gets a bit tricky because there are different terms for what I consider to be the same thing, but the name changes based on current year or previous year’s growth. Anyway, it is from bud break that the shoots grow during the coming year. We managed to propogate some cuttings from Vignole pruning in February to show examples of the parts of the plant being described.
Shoot: This is the current year’s growth that extends out from the bud that was located on the spur. A shoot is full of life and will be green in color and eventually will yield the flowers and grapes. This term is also what a vintner will say if there is a bad drought that year or a bunch of deer feast on the crop.
Cane: A shoot matures and hardens off following that season’s harvest, during the winter months. The plant enters a dormancy period and the shoot that was once vibrant and green becomes lifeless and brown.
Spur: During dormancy, the canes are pruned back to a few nodes and what is left is referred to as a spur. This was all very confusing for me at first, especially given my ignorance to most things related to growing plants. A spur is what is left after a cane is pruned, and a cane is a shoot that has hardened off for the winter after a growing season. From the spur and the nodes that exist on it, buds will develop and the process will start all over again the following year. From a distance, a spur looks like a tiny knot above the cordon.
When you visit a winery during the summer months, it will look quite different than the perceived hardened death of winter. The shoots extend from cordon and the leaves, flowers, and grape clusters paint a picture of new life. Canopy is the name for this new growth, encompassing everything from shoot to berry. Venturing through a vineyard and witnessing each plant in full canopy provides a scene of rows and rows of life where there was once cold despair. The warmth and moisture of the coming spring awaken the plants, and the buds break open as photosynthesis causes the plant to reach toward the heavens as they are given their food at the proper time, and the hand that reaches down satisfies the desires of these living things.
The sunlight feeds the plant above ground and is the catalyst in the process whereby chloroplast absorbs sunlight and converts it into carbohydrates and CO2. Carbohydrates are transferred to each part of the plant to fuel growth and to be stored during dormancy. The roots absorb moisture and nutrients and send it all up the trunk to the cordon where it is rationed out through the shoots to the berries. Life where there was once death, all through a magnificent process that occurs from season to season.
And we thought this part was going to be boring.