There were no crocodiles on the tour Marco Simonit gave me through the vineyards of Tuscany’s Castiglione d’Orcia. But had there been, I would have felt no fear. For there’s something of the Mick ‘Crocodile’ Dundee about Simonit. This is a man who somehow manages to make that nerdiest, most specialist wine topic – pruning – not only engaging but cool.
Perhaps it’s Simonit’s confidence with sharp instruments that put me in mind of the laconic protagonist of the 1980s film – at one point on our walk, he throws his secateurs at a wooden post a fair few metres away, and they stick there, quivering. This demonstration of knife-throwing skills was in order to have his hands free to make a sketch – the first of many he employs to explain the physiology and growth of a vine. Kneeling in front of the plant, oblivious to the winter cold, he draws my attention to how the vine had been mistreated in previous years, pointing out large cuts that had been made close to the trunk and along its branches. He calls them ‘wounds’.
To me, this is an epiphany. A vine can suffer wounds? And that cut there was traumatic? We didn’t learn this at wine school; we just had to mark on diagrams where the vine needed to be cut in order to stimulate the next year’s growth. The received wisdom was that vines had to be cut back in the winter and then again in the spring – after a couple of decades, most vines would be pulled up, because they were producing less and becoming uneconomical. A new vine would be planted, and then, in time, that too would be pulled.
I relay these thoughts to Simonit, and he shakes his head sadly. Vines can produce abundantly at 50, 60 or 100 years of age, he says – provided they are healthy and have been treated properly. At Henschke in Australia’s Barossa Valley, one of the many wineries for which Simonit and his partner Pierpaolo Sirch consult, The Grandfathers is a block of vines planted in the 1860s still producing plentiful, high-quality fruit. (One of Simonit’s key beliefs is that terroir is most faithfully expressed in older vines.)
Simonit & Sirch, Vine Master Pruners is the first international vine-pruning consultancy. With campuses around the world, it offers a master’s degree in pruning at the University of Bordeaux, and hosts an online programme to create Vine Master Pruners – an equivalent of the Master of Wine qualification. The consultancy’s expertise is endorsed by a string of top estates around the world – I dare say the viticulturists at the likes of Gaja, Louis Roederer and Château d’Yquem will have had their eyes opened in a similarly compelling way on hearing Simonit’s analysis of their vineyard.
Yet when he finished school, vine training was not of interest to Simonit. Born in 1966, he was raised by his grandparents (his father passed away when Simonit was 18 months old) on a small farm in Gorizia, Friuli Venezia Giulia, in northeast Italy. He loved to spend time with the animals, and in the afternoons he would ride horses with Sirch, his childhood friend with whom he also went to school. Simonit’s dream was to be a vet; however, the nearest university offering veterinary studies was almost 300km away, and he couldn’t leave his family. Instead, both Simonit and Sirch studied agriculture at the local college. On graduating in 1988, Simonit found work in the vineyards of his hometown, working as a technical adviser for Consorzio Tutela Vini Collio, an association for vineyard and winery workers. Sirch went to work for his winemaking family, who also grew cereal crops.
Simonit has always loved observing nature and drawing, and one day in the vineyard, some eight years into his career at the Collio consorzio, he decided to sketch a vine. While drawing, his attention was consumed by the cuts to the vine. At that moment, Simonit recalls, he felt ‘as if I had been struck by lightning’. He saw that, around the cuts made from previous years’ pruning, the wood was dry and blackening, and parts of the vine seemed to be dying. He called his colleagues over and asked what might be happening inside the vine. ‘Why do you care?’ they answered. ‘This is what we have always done. It’s how we control the plant.’
Simonit understood that the vine needed to be ‘domesticated’ to produce fruit, but he questioned whether it needed to suffer in the process. His curiosity was aroused. ‘I had to know why, if wild vines can last for centuries, these vines were dying so young.’ He asked his boss if he might take the dying plant to a carpenter, to cut it in half and see how the vine had responded, internally, to those external cuts.
Simonit understood that the vine needed to be ‘domesticated’ to produce fruit, but he questioned whether it needed to suffer in the process
The autopsy of the vine at a local carpenter’s changed everything for Simonit. Inside, the vine was black. There was little of the living, white wood. Around the pruning cuts, the wood had dried, creating a cone of desiccation on the inside of the plant. In some parts, fungus had crept in. Such cuts are traumatic to the plant, Simonit tells me. The larger the cut, the greater the trauma – and the higher the risk of infection and disease.
With further observation and sketches, Simonit began to formulate a more gentle approach to pruning – one that respected the vine, didn’t prevent its organic growth and ensured that cuts didn’t obstruct the flow of sap through the plant’s delicate and complex internal structure. He began speaking about his ideas with the producers on whose vineyards he worked – veteran winemakers such as Mario Schiopetto and Josko Gravner, who allowed him to experiment with their vines, practising a more sensitive, responsive and holistic approach to vine growing and training.
In 1998, Simonit left the Collio consorzio to begin freelance vineyard consultancy work; also that year, he reconnected with his friend Pierpaolo Sirch. Sirch shared Simonit’s passion, curiosity and determination to create a method that would treat the vines with respect and ensure the vineyard enjoyed a longer, healthier life. The pair began to work their ideas into four principles (see overleaf) that could be applied to any grape variety, in any vineyard, using any training system. It was in Schiopetto’s vineyards in Collio in Friuli that these principles were most rigorously tested. Those vineyards are now Simonit and Sirch’s main campus, where students come to be taught and trained.
In 2003, Simonit and Sirch launched their four principles within the context of their vine-training consultancy business, I Preparatori d’Uva (The Grape Preparers). Some months later, the ambitious Simonit called Gaja, Piedmont’s most renowned producer, to ask legendary winemaker Angelo Gaja if he would be interested in his four principles. ‘Surely, I thought, the producers of the finest wines will be keen to ensure their vines age well?’ Sitting in his car waiting to be connected, he considered how best to present his business in a short space of time. He assumed he would have to get through layers of administrators before reaching the boss. What should he say to increase his likelihood of being put through?
Instead, when the phone was answered, it was by Gaja himself. After hearing Simonit explain his approach, the patriarch agreed to visit the campus they had established on Schiopetto’s property. Two weeks later, Gaja arrived with a team of eight – four workers from his eponymous Piedmont estate and four from his Tuscan estate Ca’ Marcanda. After the visit, Simonit and Sirch had a contract with Gaja. Soon after, as word spread of this innovative pruning approach, consulting contracts also opened with sparkling producers Bellavista in Franciacorta and Ferrari in Trentino, followed by Tasca d’Almerita in Sicily, Ornellaia in Tuscany and Feudi di San Gregorio in Campania.
Surely, I thought, the producers of the finest wines will be keen to ensure their vines age well?
At a conference in Bolzano in northern Italy in 2009, the late Denis Dubourdieu, professor of oenology at the University of Bordeaux, heard Simonit speak about their method. Dubourdieu invited Simonit to his home in Bordeaux to discuss the problems the vines in the region were suffering. Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon vines in the Médoc were riddled with a trunk disease called esca, which led to reduced vigour and the premature death of the vine. There appeared to be no cure.
In Simonit’s home region of Friuli Venezia Giulia, this has been a common problem for decades. Sauvignon Blanc, one of Friuli’s most planted varieties, is particularly susceptible to esca. Simonit knew that prevention was the best way of getting rid of it.
Dubourdieu allowed the pruners to implement their four principles at Château Reynon, his estate in Cadillac. He also organised a meeting with Bordeaux’s top estates for Simonit and Sirch to explain their methods. The results would mean healthier, longer-lived vines, more uniform ripening and more homogeneity in quality. After that meeting, Simonit & Sirch’s client list burgeoned. Château Pichon-Longueville became a client, as did Haut-Batailley, Yquem and Cheval Blanc.
Today, the company works in 15 countries with a team of 20 technicians engaged in training the new generation of viticulturists. From its headquarters in Friuli Venezia Giulia, the reach, especially with the new Vine Master Pruners online platform, is global. Simonit is a household name among winemakers from Burgundy to Barossa. Randall Grahm, founder of Bonny Doon and the original California Rhone Ranger, considers him ‘a genius, my hero’ and says his understanding of vines as dynamic, complex systems ‘reminds me of how a Chinese medical doctor understands the flow of qi’. That’s one way of describing this wise and enlightened craftsman. He also throws a mean pair of secateurs.
The rules of pruning according to Simonit & Sirch
- Respect the plant. The vine must have space to grow. When we become adults, we do not sleep in our cots or wear the same clothes we wore as children. As the vine ages, its branches must be allowed space.
- Cuts must be small (Simonit’s view is that there is never any need to fully open the blades of the secateurs), and they must be made only on young wood, which can heal quicker than old wood. The reduction of the exposed area means reduced risk of infection and disease.
- Ensure the sap flow is continuous along the structure of the plant; keep cuts along one side of the vine so that the areas desiccated from cuts do not hinder the vascular flow through the vine. The energy of the plant is therefore uninterrupted, and its vigour is higher
- Pruning must allow for a certain amount of ‘protective wood’ to remain on the vine. If a large cut must be made to remove desiccated dead wood, it must be made at a safe distance from the healthy wood of the vine.
This article is taken from the spring 2021 edition (Issue 7) of our quarterly magazine which focuses on wine, spirits and good living, with vivid imagery and insightful articles. Click here to find out more.