Simonit & Sirch, the pioneers of pruning for the well-being of the vine plant

By Marco Simonit and Pierpaolo Sirch

We know everything about the life of the soils and on which type of soil the vine plant prefers to develop, about the climate and climate change, about the management of fertilization and phytosanitary treatments … but how much do we actually know about the health of vines? Wouldn’t it be time to stop uprooting vines that are not even “of age” and to rethink proper pruning for their well-being? And if they are sick, why not treat them? They seem trivial questions, but not many (or at least they were) asked, in the world of viticulture. We have already asked about them 30 years ago, and above all we asked ourselves: what wines would we have in the glass if we had healthy plants? And yes, because in the end everything leads back to the glass, to that wine that each producer would like to be the best in the world. And the longevity and healthiness of the vineyards, to which we have been dedicating ourselves with commitment and stubbornness for thirty years together with our VINE MASTER PRUNER team, is the basis of the quality and recognizability of a wine. Therefore we have observed and experimented, even following unusual ways, and we have developed a branched pruning method, which can be adapted to all forms of vine cultivation and reduces the devastating impact that incorrect cuts have on the plant’s lymphatic system. Because we are convinced that the first thing to do is prevention. And for the vineyards already irremediably affected by esca? Something can be done, and our proposal is surgery, which allows them to be treated without eradicating them.

Why are the old vineyards the healthiest?

It all started about thirty years ago, when – from the observation and study of ancient vineyards from all over Europe, of which we have different examples in Spain – we wondered why modern vineyards were uprooted after about twenty years due to the decline in production, the number of plants with symptoms of trunk diseases and missing plants, while the 60-80-100 year old vineyards were still present and healthy.

Traditional bush vine pruning – Puglia – Italy – 70 years old

We started studying the vineyards, first of all observing the appearance and structure of the plant. We have noticed how every year man, working on plants through pruning to keep them within spaces defined by modern viticulture (the height of the bending wire, the distance between the plants, the distance between the rows and the surface of the canopy), in some cases carried out real mutilations, the traces of which – or cuts – were and are clearly visible on the structure of the plant.

Mutilating pruning

What we discovered by dissecting the vine plants

Hence the intuition of dissecting some vine plants, to try to understand what was happening inside. We immediately realized how pruning, which is and remains a mutilating technical act for the plant, causes the consequences within the plant. The grapevine, not having an efficient wound closure system, in fact operates in a different way compared to the arboreal plants. Whenever a wound is caused, either through pruning or through other mechanical processes, the plant reacts naturally by closing the lymphatic vessels that carry the lymph to the removed portion of wood. By doing this, portions of dead or dry wood are created inside the plant, which we have defined desiccation cones. The desiccation cones created with pruning reduce the amount of living wood, which is very important for the plant, because it constitutes the warehouse for the reserve substances it uses at the time of bud breaking. We also noticed how the size of the desiccation cones was related to the size of the cut. A cut made on a one or two year old wood causes a smaller and shallower desiccation cone, compared to a cut on an older wood. The continuous execution of pruning cuts, and the consequent desiccation cones, over the years increases the amount of dead wood (darker wood) inside, reducing the amount of living wood (lighter wood). The latter is very important for the plant, because it constitutes the warehouse for the reserve substances that the vine uses at the time of bud breaking. We have also noticed how the desiccation cones, caused by the close and crossed cuts on the perennial structure of the plant, reduce the number and efficiency of the lymphatic vessels present within the living wood, hindering the circulation of the internal lymphatic flow, both towards the canopy than towards the roots. Up, in the most extreme cases, to cause the death of the plant, especially during the summer period: a period in which the internal circulation of the plant is severely tested by the high demand / loss of water from the canopy.

Cordon, dead wood vs living wood

Pruning wounds promote esca disease

We became aware of the correlation between trunk diseases, in particular esca disease, and pruning wounds from which the complex of diseases entered and began its work of deteriorating the internal structure of the plant. This deterioration caused by dry wood and trunk diseases is less frequent in old vineyards, whose plants have a sequence of structures, i.e. a trunk from which arms branch out like the branches of trees. This has been confirmed by the research we have carried out in recent years in collaboration with the University of Bordeaux.

Esca symptoms – Friuli – Italy – 14 years

The vine is a liana

So, everything started for us from the study and observation of both the oldest vineyards in Europe and the nature of the vine plant.

The vine is not a tree, but a liana. Its feature as a liana in nature leads it to grow in space, crawling at ground level and then climbing trees to reach the light. In nature, therefore, the plant has no wire or other constraints, but can grow freely.

Liana over 1000 years old found in a forest – Sardegna – Italy

Over the centuries, man has adopted different techniques to tame the vine. The first was to replicate what happened in nature: then the vine was grown along the trunk of a tree, and the trees were used as a live support. He then found other solutions (bush vine, pergola, tendone, etc.), always respecting his natural aptitude to branch and grow in space.

Bush vine – Chateau Montelena – Napa, USA

In recent decades, thanks to technological innovation and the advent of agricultural vehicles, viticulture has been redefined based on a geometric idea to facilitate mechanical processing and also to meet innovations in the oenological field. From this moment on, man therefore began to impose strict limits on the vine plant, respected through mutilating pruning. All this has favoured and accelerated the decay of modern vineyards and the increase in the incidence of trunk diseases, among which the most widespread in the world is the esca disease, against which no effective product has been found so far, even if you are doing a lot of research in this regard.

Vineyard decay: numerous interplanted vines in a geometrically pruned vineyard

The SIMONIT&SIRCH Method for the health of vines

We therefore believed that the first thing to do was precisely prevention and that prevention must necessarily pass from a rethinking of pruning, so that it was more respectful of the physiology of the plant. We therefore codified our SIMONIT & SIRCH pruning method, behind which there has been and still is a constant commitment to research and practical application in the vineyard.

In summary, the SIMONIT & SIRCH Method is based on 4 simple but important principles, and can be adapted to any variety, climate and form of training: allowing the plant to branch with age, occupy space with the trunk and branches; guarantee the continuity of the lymphatic flow; make small cuts on young wood, not very invasive; use, when necessary, the so-called “respect wood” technique to remove the desiccation from the main sap flow.

Evolution of the plant, through the branched pruning on guyot, high quantity of living wood.

Evolution of the plant, through branched pruning on cordon, high quantity of living wood.

With the wealth of experience and knowledge that we have gained in Italy and with the awareness that each wine-growing region in the world has specific peculiarities, we have launched ourselves beyond the borders and are proud, and honoured, that our method has aroused interest of many important companies in European and non-European countries (including Château d’Yquem, Château Latour, Moët & Chandon, Louis Roederer, Château Montelena, Alma Carraovejas, Marqués de Riscal), who called us as consultants and to train their staff.

It is the data that speak

In years of applying the SIMONIT & SIRCH Method all over the world, and the use of experiments and comparisons carried out in our Mario Schiopetto Campus in Capriva del Friuli in Italy, we have found that the plants maintain and recover homogeneity and vigor with positive effects also on the quantity and quality of grapes.

We then compared vineyards pruned with the geometric pruning, currently used, and vineyards pruned with the SIMONIT & SIRCH Method.

Cabernet Sauvignon traditional pruning, lots of dead wood – Chile

Cabernet Sauvignon branched pruning, lots of living wood – Chile

We have observed how the application of a dynamic and physiological pruning of the plant promote an increase in living wood over the years, with a consequent intact and efficient lymphatic system, which allows the plant to have a longer life span than a plant pruned in a rigid and geometric manner, reducing the number of plants affected by trunk diseases and maintaining a vegetative-productive homogeneity over the years. This allows the plants to age in the best possible way, thus expressing their terroir to the fullest.

Comparison between traditional pruning and Simonit&Sirch pruning

At the beginning the tradition was to remove the symptomatic plants. By 2007 started the conversion with the Simonit&Sirch pruning method. The quantity of replaced vines starts with 4,3% in 2007 arriving with 0,8% in 2015

Not classic consultants but real Vine Master Pruner

Biodiversity and sustainability are two key values, now essential for any activity and project, including in the wine sector. Our commitment is first of all to safeguard the great heritage of indigenous varieties and to consolidate the knowledge of the pruner, thus also protecting the agricultural landscape that characterizes the various wine-growing areas of Spain.

But nothing changes if you do not explain and put into practice a good pruning.

To be successful, the application of the SIMONIT & SIRCH Method in a vineyard requires training and accompaniment for those involved in pruning and managing the vineyards. The training course is always tailored to the companies, adapting the principles to the situations present in the vineyard. The training course with the pruners takes place together with a SIMONIT & SIRCH technician, who accompanies them and shares the know-how and experience with them, helping them to gain confidence and autonomy in the work. We are increasingly convinced that there is no good or bad pruner but there is a trained and an untrained pruner.

Vine master pruner during training at Chateau Haut Bailly – Bordeaux

Spain in the vineyard

Just as we do all over the world, also for Spain, our business is to seek virtuous examples from traditional viticulture. Of which Spain is very rich. For several years we have been working in Spain for the recovery and restoration of old vineyards, where there is a long tradition of spur pruning (bush vine in particular). Here too, as in the rest of the world, in recent years a geometric concept of the vine (spurred cordon) has been followed, with the consequences that we have explained above. However, there is a very strong return to viticulture on the part of young people, who need correct teaching in order to project their business into the future, carrying it out in an increasingly professionally prepared and environmentally friendly way.

Surgery against esca

When plants unfortunately show symptoms of chronic esca  or even apoplexy, today they are destined for eradication. We therefore decided to contrast these practices with a surgical intervention and – after many studies and experiments – we have developed the surgery by SIMONIT & SIRCH, which allows you to save the vineyards without uprooting them.

It is a technique that we experimented first in France and then in Italy and which consists in removing the wood rot that forms under the wounds caused by incorrect pruning, precisely those through which the fungi penetrate and attack the wood, coming to compromise the integrity of the lymphatic system of the vine.

90% of the operated plants are fully productive again

The first tests began in Château Reynon, in 2011 with the impulse of Denis Dubourdieu, former director of the ISVV Istitut des Sciences de la vigne et du vin at the University of Bordeaux, who died prematurely. It was Dubourdieu who called us to deal with what he himself considered a case of a pandemic in Bordeaux, which mainly affected varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc. In France in 2001 sodium arsenite had left the scene, the only chemical treatment that had shown a positive effect in limiting the symptoms of Esca disease, but also extremely toxic and in Italy already banned since 1977. Hence the consequent resurgence of the disease in the following years and Dubourdieu’s call to seek an immediate and practical solution. We started studying the Bordeaux pruning systems and the methods of care and cleaning of infected plants in Sancerre on Sauvignon Blanc, a variety particularly sensitive to trunk diseases. Then we did some bibliographic research, discovering that surgery is not new, but it was described by Ravaz and Lafon as a practice known since ancient times to eliminate decayed wood from esca, and Poussard used it in the end. in the nineteenth century cutting the wood deteriorated by the action of fungi with very encouraging results on 90-95% of the stumps. Therefore, ours is not a new technique, but rather the recovery of an ancient practice, updated and implemented with modern tools.

Vine master pruner during the surgery

Using chainsaws, the trunk is cleaned by removing the decay caused by the esca, preserving the sides of the same for lymphatic continuity, thus saving the plant and its production. (curated plant Photo)

Plant curated Chateau Reynon, Sauvignon blanc – 2013

Plant curated Chateau Reynon, Sauvignon blanc – 2018

To date, we have experimented with vine surgery on over 10,000 plants of different varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc) reared in different wine-growing regions (Collio, Isonzo, Franciacorta, Bolgheri, Champagne, Burgundy and Bordeaux), with 90% of the operated plants returning productive and asymptomatic.

Marco Simonit and Pierpaolo Sirch
SIMONIT & SIRCH are known as the VINE MASTER PRUNERS and their advice is requested by the most important wineries all over the world. The team, founded by the Italians Marco Simonit and Pierpaolo Sirch, is dedicated to the recovery of the pruning profession with training and tutoring tools and today it is the only internationally accredited and structured group for consulting and training in the cultivation of grapevine. He teaches  the SIMONIT & SIRCH pruning method, which is transferred to pruners through a precise and rigorous tutoring process. It is a branched pruning method, which can be adapted to all forms of vine growing and reduces the devastating impact that incorrect cuts have on the plant’s lymphatic system. The SIMONIT & SIRCH team works in the most important wine-growing districts in the world. It is present in 12 countries in Europe, the USA, Argentina, Chile, South Africa, Australia, where it provides its services to 150 companies and has established scientific collaborations with many important research centers and universities. It has trained more than 10,000 skilled workers. In 2009 he created the Italian School of Vine Pruning, which today has about twenty locations in the main Italian wine-growing areas with a total of over 5,000 members. In 2016 he promoted the DUTE- Diplôme Universitaire de Taille et Épamprage (first university degree in pruning in the world) in Bordeaux, in collaboration with the Institut des Sciences de la Vigne et du Vin. Marco Simonit has published two Vine Pruning Manuals, dedicated to the spurred cordon and the Guyot. The French version of the latter, “Guide pratique de la taille Guyot – Prévenir les maladies du bois”, won the 2018 OIV International Award in the Viticulture section in 2018.

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