All about vines: how to choose and plant them

From rooted cuttings to the vineyard

/ Inspirations

16/02/2024

Estimated reading time 6 minutes

A vine variety is a type of vine; more precisely, it designates a cultivated variety of vine. It is similar to the more general term cultivar, which means cultivated variety and refers to any plant (fruit tree, vegetable, ornamental plant or other). In actual fact, not all vines are cultivated, that is to say, selected and used for a purpose, such as producing wine. Why is the type of vine so important? Leaving aside table grapes and focusing specifically on wine grapes, the vine is instrumental to the quality of the wine itself.

Viticulture is widespread in many areas of the world, practically on all continents. Including common and niche varieties, in Italy alone there are estimated to be around 1,500 varieties of vine. Just as there are many vines, there are equally as many ways to classify them. For example, based on the colour of the grapes, they can be classed as black, white, pink or grey; based on their geographical origin they can be categorised as indigenous, traditional or international.

A vineyard refers to the area of land on which vines are grown, as well to all the vines on it. Today we will explain how to choose a vine variety and how to plant it to make a vineyard.

How to choose the variety or type of vine

Given the numerous types of vine available, how do you choose the right variety to plant? One way to start is by looking around and observing what winemakers in your locality do.

The vine is a perennial plant, which means that it lives for many years: a vineyard can last 20-30 years or even longer. The decisions you make before planting the vines will influence what happens in subsequent years, and mistakes made at this stage are difficult to fix. In short, for reasons of time and cost, experimentation is highly inadvisable when it comes to vineyards.

But although those who make a career out of viticulture always avoid taking risks, this criterion is perhaps less stringent for those who are growing a few rows of vines to produce grapes for their own family’s consumption. In all cases, before being planted, the vineyard must be planned well in advance, including the type(s) of grapes to grow.

Generally when choosing the vine variety, you need to take into account various factors:

  • The pedoclimatic conditions, referring to the soil type and microclimate, as well as environmental factors such as the latitude, altitude, topography of the site (exposure, gradient, etc.).

  • The local winemaking “tradition”, meaning the varieties for which a locality is best suited.

  • Applicable regulations, which in principle only affect winemakers who are growing for commercial purposes, rather than those working a small plot solely for their family’s consumption.

Here in Italy, at regional/provincial level there are lists of cultivable vines in force, which limit the choice of vine varieties that can be planted in that territory. These restrictions apply to commercial winegrowers, although the lists make a good starting point because they indicate the winemaking tradition of that locality. The lists are based on cultivars registered in the Italian National Register of vine varieties (around 600 are currently recorded), which is another resource that amateur growers can refer to. If viticulture has deep roots where you live, there may be studies on the area (zonations) promoted by a wine protection consortium. The documentation produced from these studies contains extensive data on the local pedoclimatic conditions, as well as recommendations for winegrowers, choices to be made during the planting phase and vineyard management techniques.

The choice of vine determines the rootstock. The vine saplings that you plant in the vineyard are called rooted cuttings, which typically consist of two parts of the plant: the rootstock from which the roots will develop, onto which is grafted a scion, which will eventually form the crown. The rootstock and scion belong to different cultivars, and it is the scion cultivar that determines the vine variety. The function of the rootstock is to moderate between the pedoclimatic conditions and the vine: choosing the right type of rootstock is a technical decision (which we will not go into) that should take account of various factors relating to the soil, the vine variety and the rootstock.

As a rule, one of the first things to do before planting is to analyse the physical and chemical properties of the soil. For a small domestic vineyard, this may not be worth the effort. However, it is worth looking around and, once you have decided which type of vine to plant, contact a specialised nursery well in advance to get advice on the best scion-rootstock combination for the rooted cuttings.

How to plant vines

The choice of grape variety will influence your decision-making relating to vine planting methods. So, how many rooted cuttings can you plant? It depends on the available space, or rather, on your preferred planting density for the vineyard (the number of plants per hectare, from low to high) and the training system. The training system is the configuration that you give to the vines in the vineyard, and consists of support scaffolding made up of posts and wires. Currently the most widespread training systems are espaliered methods, such as Guyot and spur-pruned cordon. So, starting with the field measurements and based on the density and spacing (distance between the rows and between the vines of each row), you get the number of rows and the number of plants per row and, therefore, the number of vines that need to be planted.

In calculating the distance between the vineyard rows, it should be ensured that the plants do not overshadow each other: vines are heliophilous plants, which means that they need the sun's energy for the grapes to ripen. At the same time, they must be appropriately spaced to ensure sufficient air flow through the foliage and therefore reduce the risk of disease. Adequate plant spacing also gives you more convenient access to perform tasks such as mowing between the rows with a flail mower or garden tractor, or working under the vines, whether mowing the grass with a flail mower or brushcutter, or tilling the soil with a rotary tiller.

Normally the best time of year to plant cuttings is in autumn or during the vegetative dormancy period, so that when spring arrives, the vines have already been developing in the ground for a few months, ready to germinate. The vineyard must be tidied prior to planting; the soil should therefore be prepared well in advance, which means clearing any vegetation, tilling the soil and then getting rid of stones and the like, before finally carrying out basic fertilisation. Clearing the soil can vary from simply cutting weeds with a flail mower or brushcutter to uprooting trees and shrubs. To work the soil and bury the fertiliser, i.e. manure, all you need is a rotary tiller (equipped with a plough for the first pass).

Before planting the vine seedlings, trellising or support structures must be set up for each row of plants (end posts and intermediate posts made of wood or other material). You can plant the rooted cuttings simply by digging a hole for each one, positioning the plant, filling the hole and then compacting the soil on the surface. Once the vines are planted, along the rows at the heights required for your chosen training system, assemble and tension metal wires that will support the stems and shoots. Finally, for each cutting, position a brace alongside it and tie the plant to the lowest wire.

To effortlessly transport all the materials and equipment needed to prepare the soil and install the trellising, you can use a transporter.

In addition to choosing the plants, which we just talked about—including the vine variety, rootstock, training system and so on —there is another type of assessment that you should perform on your prospective vineyard as soon as possible. This concerns vineyard management, i.e. managing the vines and soil. On the subject of vine management, you can find an overview of winter and summer pruning in our article on month-by-month activities to be performed on the vineyard.

Soil management is aimed at maintaining the soil’s fertility, which is closely linked to irrigation and fertilisation, i.e. the supply of water and nutrients. On the subject of soil management, besides grass cover-cropping and soil cultivation, you can take a look at how to clear the vineyard with a brushcutter. To learn about the advantages of biodiversity in the vineyard, you can read up on which plants grow well with vines.

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