The harvest naturally represents the highpoint of the year for winegrowers – the point
where everything is at stake. But you shouldn’t believe that, after this peak of stress, they take things easy. Vines always demand attention, even in winter. For Roger Demuth, Vice-President of Vinsmoselle, it can even be considered to be the best time.
On the high slopes of the Primerberg, on this February morning, the Moselle valley is entirely masked beneath a fine veil of cloud. The temperature is a few degrees above zero, but the air is pleasant. Even if the sun is not breaking through, it is managing to cast light over these vines, on land brought together a few years ago, overlooking the lock at Stadtbredimus. It is a pleasant winter’s day. One of those moments which make you want to spend time outside, suitably wrapped up, to contemplate these picture postcard landscapes.
And it has come at a good time, because Roger Demuth and his labourer are right now striding through the rows of vines planted along the direction of the slope. The 14.5 hectares which the winemaker works are primarily located in Wormeldange, his fiefdom, but he also owns three hectares around Stadtbredimus. And on these steeply-inclined slopes grow the vines he cherishes: the Pinot Gris – “an Alsatian clone which produces in small volumes, but grapes of quality” and Pinot Noir. Most times, this Pinot Gris is destined for the top wines from Domaines Vinsmoselle, and it therefore carries the name of the locality. The grapes produced from the parcel of Pinot Noir adjoining it go into barrels from which will come the Edmond de la Fontaine red wine.
To tell the truth, the majority of the winter’s work is already behind them. Some weeks after the harvest, they have already carried out the pre-pruning. That is the work to prune the vines and to cut out a good part of the dead wood. Above all, it enables them to save time when the moment for fine pruning arrives. “In many regions, the pre-pruning is mechanical,” explains Roger Demuth: “You go over the area in a tractor, and the machine cuts everything that is above the wire. But on the Moselle, we prune everything by hand. Essentially because the slopes are steep and, in winter, the ground is greasy and slippery, and that can be dangerous in a tractor.”
The cut wood quickly returns to the soil, because it will be shredded and left in place, with the aim of creating the humus which will allow the plants to grow harmoniously. Planting legumes between the rows of vines is part of the same aim. Rather than chemically altering the soil, it is much better to give nature something with which she can do a good part of the work herself.
Pruning: the result of a strategic calculation
This manual work is not something to discourage the winegrower. “It’s pleasant, I like it…,” he smiles: “In winter, when it is not too cold and not raining, it’s lovely here. It’s peaceful, there is no noise, nothing to disturb you… What’s more, the same thing always happens. When it’s time to go home, I find myself saying ‘Go on, just one more’ and then ‘Just one more’!”
After pre-pruning to reduce the amount of work needed, the time comes for the actual pruning, which is far more precise. At Roger Demuth’s vineyard, there are two options. If the vines are destined to produce top-of-the-range wine, the rule is to leave just one fruiting arm (single Guyot system). If they will produce grapes to make sparkling wine or more classic wines, it will have two arms (double Guyot system). In the first scenario, the aim is to achieve a yield of sixty hectolitres per hectare, while in the other it will be more like eighty.
The pruning is a highly strategic stage. It determines the form that the vine will have when growing, and the quantity of fruits and leaves that it will bear. Deciding to leave one or two arms, with a given number of buds from which the shoots will emerge in the spring, is the result of a strategic calculation. To produce grapes, the vine needs to draw energy: that is the work of the foliage, which will transform the sunlight for that purpose. Depending on the quantity of grapes that the winegrower is looking for, he will balance the leaf coverage. All this is already in play at pruning time, even if adjustments can be made as the plant grows. “In the highest-quality vines, I leave between eight and ten buds per arm, and each shoot will give one or two bunches of grapes,” Demuth explains: “If a third bunch appears, I take it off: that would be too many.”
On this day, on the Primerberg, the only work remaining to be done was to attach the vine arm to the wire. With the cloud cover providing slight humidity, the wood was sufficiently supple for the arm to be bent – “these are the best conditions for this work”, says Demuth approvingly. Kitted out in large boots, the bag with the plastic clips tied around his waist, he is in his element on the slopes. His actions are quick and assured, and the extremity of each vine arm plunges towards the Moselle. “It may not look like it, but it’s exhausting work!” he jokes. “You are always slightly bent over, you have to watch out where you are walking… at 30, it isn’t a problem, but once you hit your fifties it becomes a bit more difficult every year!”