Ask Wine Wizard

In order to grow healthy grape vine root systems should I remove the first buds?



Nip in the bud?

I purchased and planted a few Nero d’Avola vines last December and have been carefully taking care of them ever since. I read that in order for the vines to grow healthy root systems, I should remove the first buds. I am a bit wary, however, as I was under the impression that plants needed their leaves in order to strengthen their roots. How should I proceed?

Mike Gatt
Malta, Europe

Hey, finally a viticulture question for the Wine Wizard after all these years! I must also applaud you for choosing such a wonderful and unappreciated grape varietal. Though I have a natural habit of rooting for viticultural underdogs (which the more esoteric types from Italy certainly are in the United States) I do have to say I’ve tasted some pretty good Nero d’Avola wines and think you can expect good things from your budding vineyard. You’re right that the first priority for a baby vine is to grow a strong root system. You never want to force a year-old (or even a two-year-old) grape vine to bear any fruit at all – it needs to devote its energy to developing infrastructure, not wasting it on making grapes. In addition to taxing the system of a growing grapevine, the quality of fruit you’d get from the first year or two of a vine’s life wouldn’t be ideal for winemaking.

As your vine seems well away from that stage, however, you do want to carefully select the right new green growth to develop so don’t get rid of those first buds yet! Since grape clusters, if any, develop later in the spring time, you’ll be able to get rid of them by pinching off any flowers that bloom from your first shoots. But now, what to do with your first sprouts, which will turn into the strong trunk of the vine later. When the first two to four little green shoots with their tiny leaves start to bud out from your plant, select one that appears to be the strongest and straightest and tie it loosely (enough room to stick your finger between the stake, shoot and tape) with green plastic tie-tape to your training stake. Be sure to leave the other little shoots coming out of the ground for the moment. Sometimes the shoot you’ve selected will snap off in the tie-up process and you need to leave a couple of extras just in case.

Once your selected shoot appears to be successfully tied and is still growing, you can go ahead and snip off the shoots you didn’t select and carefully rub off any other little buds with your fingers. The leaves that grow on this selected shoot (but not any inflorescence, which will turn into clusters) are indeed needed for carbohydrate production and healthy growth of the plant’s green tissues. Other winemakers sometimes leave all the shoots on during the first year to maximize the carbohydrates and root growth. Next winter, when the green tissue lignifies and dies back, you can begin to prune your vine into the configuration that works for your vineyard and the trellis system. The most important thing is that you start by training your new shoot to be the strong trunk that’ll support the future fruiting zone and will function in tandem with your trellis and vineyard site. I know it’s hard to wait, but keeping your grapevine from fruiting in at least the first two years will make for a stronger vine and better fruit later on. (See WineMaker, June-July 2002 for more on caring for your young vineyard.)