Early season grapevine canopy management, Part I: Shoot thinning

By: Maria Smith and Dr. Michela Centinari, Dept. of Plant Science

This is the first of two posts on grapevine canopy management in the early growing season from bud burst to bloom.  The second in the series will be post in two weeks and will focus on pre- or trace-bloom leaf removal for crop level and disease pressure control.

This week, our blog post will focus on shoot thinning, the first canopy management practice of the growing season.  As seen in the pictures below, we spent last week shoot thinning Grüner Veltliner (V. vinifera) vines in a central Pennsylvania vineyard (Figure 1).

Figure 1. (A) Andrew Harner, graduate student at Penn State in the Centinari lab, is shoot thinning Grüner Veltliner (V. vinifera) vines, May 10, 2017, Lewisburg, PA. (B) Grüner Veltliner shoot length at the time of thinning (pencil as a reference for shoot length).

In the following sections, we will highlight the benefits and costs associated with shoot thinning while providing a few general shoot thinning guidelines for both V. vinifera and hybrid cultivars in the Mid-Atlantic region.

Benefits of Shoot Thinning Grapevines

While dormant pruning (https://psuwineandgrapes.wordpress.com/tag/dormant-pruning/) is the primary tool used by grape growers to maintain vine structure, canopy architecture and regulate crop level, shoot thinning provides an additional canopy management tool to bring vines into vegetative and fruiting balance by reducing shoot density and the number of clusters per vine. Cluster thinning later in the season may be needed in order to balance highly-fruitful vines.

In addition to improving balance between vegetative growth and fruit biomass, other benefits of shoot thinning include:

  • Reduction of canopy density and fruit shading: through removal of selected shoots, shoot thinning reduces overcrowding of shoots in the canopy thus reducing the number of leaf layers and improving sunlight exposure to fruit (1).
  • Reduction of disease pressure: reducing canopy density improves air circulation and sunlight penetration that promotes quicker drying of leaves and fruit, as well as increases spray penetration.

Timing of Shoot Thinning

Shoot thinning should be done early in the growing season, when shoots are approximately 5-6 inches long and not more than 10-12 inches long. Shoot thinning should be timed after the date of last ‘expected’ frost, such that secondary or non-damaged primary shoots can be retained in the event of a late spring frost.

When shoot thinning is performed before inflorescences are visible (shoots 0.8 inch to 4 inches), increased vigor of the remaining shoots and lateral shoot growth may occur as a response, negating the benefits of shade reduction (1). When performed too late (shoot longer than 10 inches), shoots become lignified at the base and difficult to remove.  If performing late thinning, pruning shears should be used if there is risk of damaging the arm of the vine. It also takes longer to thin longer shoots, potentially decreasing the cost-effectiveness of this practice.

Shoot Spacing and Density Recommendations

Generally, shoot thinning on cane-pruned vines is easier, faster, and more straight-forward than spur-pruned vines, which require substantially more decisions regarding what shoots to retain or remove, and where shoots should be spaced along the cordon (2; Figure 2).

Figure 2. Before shoot thinning: spur-pruned (left) vs. cane pruned (right) in Grüner Veltliner, May 26, 2016, Lewisburg, PA.

Plant genotype, soil, and climate are all factors influencing vine vigor potential and capacity to fully ripen a crop.  Therefore, these factors indirectly affect the appropriate number of shoots to retain at thinning.  Many Cooperative Extension websites provide recommendations on range of optimal shoot density based on cultivars grown in their region. [Author’s note: for the eastern US see the additional resources section at the bottom of the post.]

Shoot density targets for Pennsylvania regions:

  • For vinifera cultivars it is recommended to leave 3 to 5 shoots per linear foot of canopy (3, 4; Figure 3). The general rule of thumb is to retain fewer shoots in red varieties and more in white varieties. However, other factors (i.e., cultivar disease susceptibility) must be taken into consideration.

Figure 3. Suzanne Fleishman, graduate student at Penn State in the Centinari lab, is shoot thinning spur-pruned Grüner Veltliner vines (May 26, 2016). Note the differences shoot density between the cordons on the right (thinned) and on the left (unthinned) cordons.

  • For most of the hybrid cultivars it is recommended to leave 4 to 6 shoots per linear foot of canopy (5).
  • For Concord and other native cultivars, as many as 15 shoots per linear foot of canopy can be retained (4).
  • In divided canopies trellis systems, the same shoot density along each cordon should be retained (Figure 4).

In addition to the number, the position of the shoots along the cordon is important.  Ideally, the shoots retained should be equally spaced to promote a uniform, balanced canopy.

Figure 4. Proper shoot density at harvest on Gewurtztraminer vines trained on divided Scott-Henry system in Andreas, PA.

What types of shoots should you remove?

  • Weak, non-fruitful shoots especially if they grow in crowded areas of the canopy.
  • Secondary and tertiary shoots, if a primary healthy shoot has emerged.
  • Shoots arising from the trunk that are not retained for renewal wood (e., new trunks and canes or cordons).

Does shoot thinning improve fruit composition and wine sensory perception?

The associated costs with manual labor and labor shortages are reasonable considerations before implementing vineyard management practices.  This is also true for implementing shoot thinning techniques into a vineyard.  Nonetheless, it is also important to consider the potential benefits from implementing a new practice.

The effects of shoot thinning practices on hybrid varieties are a bit unclear. A previous study on shoot thinning found that shoot thinned Marechal Foch (red interspecific hybrid of Vitis) vines exhibited higher total soluble solids (ᵒBrix) and berry anthocyanin concentrations as compared to un-thinned vines (6). The increase in berry anthocyanin, however, did not translate into higher anthocyanin concentration in the final wine, and furthermore, shoot thinning did not impact the sensory perception of “fruitiness” of the wines (6). In contrast, a study focusing on Corot noir (red interspecific hybrid of Vitis) implementation of shoot thinning provided inconsistent results in grape and wine quality across a two-year (2008-2009) evaluation, which was determined by ᵒBrix, pH, titratable acidity (TA), wine anthocyanin, berry and wine tannin content (7).  Shoot thinning increased berry ᵒBrix, wine alcohol concentration and anthocyanin content only in second year of this study.  While berry TA at harvest was lower (e.g., 2008, un-thinned = 8.6 g/L, shoot thinned = 7.6 g/L), there were no differences in the TA of wine in either year (7).  Shoot thinning also decreased berry seed tannin in 2008 and berry skin and wine tannin in 2009, which could have negative implications for final wine, considering generally low tannin concentrations in hybrid red wines (7).  In an effort to compensate for costs associated with shoot thinning and yield loss, this study on Corot Noir suggested growers increase the price of grapes by 11 to 20% per ton, depending on the average annual market price and yield loss (7).

A study in Fayetteville (Arkansas) on three highly-fruitful French-American hybrid cultivars (Aurore, Chancellor, and Villard noir) found that shoot thinning increased fruit sugar accumulation (ᵒBrix) only in Chancellor and without changes in pH or TA, while a more intense juice color was associated with shoot thinned vines of both red cultivars (Chancellor and Villard noir; 8). In addition, shoot thinning favorably decreased the Ravaz index (yield to pruning weight ratio) for all three cultivars, improving vine balance (8).

The results of these studies suggest that in some situations the costs of shoot thinning may not outweigh the benefits, especially for hybrids that do not command a high market value (Finger Lakes Grape Prices 2016).  However, none of these studies account for potential reduction in disease infections, which may help justify the implementation of shoot thinning in a given vineyard.  For example, it has been found that higher shoot density may contribute to the increased incidence of Botrytis rot infections in susceptible cultivars such as Seyval Blanc (9) and Vignoles (4).

In other cases, shoot thinning improved fruit composition in Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc for two consecutive vintages (1), and also increased color intensity, phenolic content, and total anthocyanins of Cabernet Franc berries (1). Benefits of shoot thinning on fruit quality and wine sensory perception have been reported for other vinifera cultivars, such us Barbera (10) and Sauvginon blanc (11).

Unless your vineyard is located in a low or moderate vigor site, shoot thinning is strongly recommended for vinifera cultivars growing in the Mid-Atlantic region.

If you want to assess the effects of shoot thinning on fruit composition, plan to leave half of a row of vines un-thinned and thin the remaining half to a consistent number of shoots per foot (e.g., 4 shoots per foot). Alternatively, use two rows (of the same variety and cultivar) to assess the impact of shoot thinning in your vineyard: one row thinned and the adjacent row un-thinned.  These two methods should help evaluate the effect of shoot thinning on berry composition at harvest and if possible, on wine chemistry and sensory perception assuming that the lots of berries can stay separated through wine production.

Effects of shoot thinning on vine physiology

Impacts of shoot thinning on vine physiology and performance are complex.  A study conducted in Italy evaluated the whole-canopy photosynthetic response to shoot thinning using spur-pruned Barbera vines (V. vinifera; 10). Vines were thinned to 5 shoots per foot, reducing the total shoot number by 50% as compared to un-thinned control.  In this study (10) shoot thinning significantly improved grape sugar content, color, and phenolics. Despite the benefits provided by shoot thinning on fruit composition, which has been already reported by other studies, what makes this study unique and interesting it that they investigated the mechanisms behind the improvement in grape quality through the measurement of whole-canopy net carbon assimilation.  Although the shoot-thinned vines had initially lower photosynthesis (carbon assimilation) than un-thinned vines due to the removal of photosynthetic source (leaf), they had regained photosynthetic capacity to levels similar to the un-thinned vines within 17 days of treatment.  This occurred as a result of a substantial increase in both main leaf size and amount of lateral leaves as a result of shoot thinning (10).  Therefore, individual shoots of thinned-vines had a higher supply of assimilates (e.g., sugar) per unit of crop, which can increase sugar accumulation during ripening. This may explain why shoot thinning improved grape composition in Barbera under these growing conditions.

Additional Shoot Thinning Resources

 

References Cited

  1. Reynolds AG., et al. 2005. Timing of shoot thinning in Vitis vinifera:  impacts on yield and fruit composition variables.  56, 343-356.
  2. Intrieri, C and Poni, S. Integrated evolution of trellis training systems and machines to improve grape and vintage quality of mechanized Italian vineyards.  AJEV.  46, 116-127.
  3. Fiola, J. 2017. Canopy Management – Shoot thinning and positioning. “Timely Vit” from UMD Extension.
  4. Walter-Peterson, H. 2013.  Shoot thinning:  Good for the vines, but good for the wines?  Finger Lakes Vineyard Notes.
  5. Martinson, T and Vanden Heuvel, J. Shoot density and canopy management for hybrids. CCE. http://www.fruit.cornell.edu/grape/pdfs/Canopy%20Management%20for%20Hybrids%20-2007.pdf
  6. Sun Q., et al. 2011. Impact of shoot thinning and harvest date on yield components, fruit composition, and wine quality of Marechal Foch.  AJEV. 62:1, 32-41.
  7. Sun Q., et al. 2012. Impact of shoot and cluster thinning on yield, fruit composition, and wine quality of Corot noir.  AJEV. 63:1, 49-56.
  8. Morris, JR. et al. 2004. Flower cluster and shoot thinning for crop control in French-American hybrid grapes.  AJEV. 55:4, 423-426.
  9. Reynolds, AG et al. 1986. Effect of shoot density and crop control on growth, yield, fruit composition, and wine quality of ‘Seyval blanc’.  J. Amer. Soc. Hort. Sci. 111, 55-63.
  10. Bernizzoni, F. et al. 2011. Shoot thinning effects on seasonal whole-canopy photosynthesis and vine performance in Vitis vinifera L. cv. Barbera. Aus. J. Grape Wine Res. 17, 351-357.
  11. Naor et al. 2002. Shoot and cluster thining influence vegetative growth, fruit yield, and wine quality of ‘Sauvignon blanc’ grapevines.  J. Amer. Soc. Hort. Sci. 127(4), 628-634.

 

Maria Smith is a viticulture PhD candidate with Dr. Michela Centinari in the Department of Plant Science.  She specializes in cold stress physiology of wine grapes.  She was the previous recipient of the John H. and Timothy R. Crouch Program Support Endowment, an endowment founded and funded by the Crouch brothers, original owners of Allegro Winery in Brogue, PA.  She is currently funded by the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (NE-SARE) program, a program from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA).

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One response to “Early season grapevine canopy management, Part I: Shoot thinning”

  1. Cathy Kruggel says :

    Great post. I’m working on thinning my St. Vincent’s right now in the rain since I can’t be spraying. Let’s hope their Brix is higher than ~15 this year.

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