A team of Italian pruners are reaping the fruits of two decades' worth of experimentation after their co-founder Marco Simonit received an “Oscar del Vino” for best viticulture agronomist last month in Rome.
The honor recognizes the Friuli-based Simonit & Sirch's efforts to develop a pruning method that better preserves a vine’s state of health – and more than doubles a plant’s lifespan, according to its creators.
And while Marco Simonit, co-founder of the 10-strong team with Pierpaolo Sirch, was singled out to receive the Oscar del Vino, the manner in which he accepted his gong reflected his company's collaborative ethos; he was accompanied on stage by three colleagues, each of whom wore a mask depicting his face.
Similar humor can be found on Simonit & Sirch's pruning instruction videos posted on YouTube. “You don’t have to wear a jacket and tie to say serious things,” says Simonit. “If the substance is there, you can also be a little ironic.”
Simonit comes from a family of dairy farmers and, as a child, aspired to be a veterinarian. However, while working for the Consorzio Vini Collio – an association of winemakers in Friuli – he fell in love with grape vines. “I liked to draw the plants,” Simonit recalls, “to watch, to observe, and then from there I asked myself what were the effects of pruning on the plant’s anatomy.”
His curiosity was in its infancy, and he began to take the trunks of dead vines to a carpenter – to conduct autopsies. What he found was that “because the wood dried up where there were cuts, the sap always had to find different routes.” Simonit realized that pruning had an enormous impact on vines' anatomical functions. The epiphany instigated his 20-year study into alternative pruning techniques.
What eventuated is a method fundamentally different to conventional methods in two ways: “One, that you always cut young wood – of one or maximum two years – where the plant’s ability to heal the wound is very good," says Simonit. And two, “knowing how to prune in order to give continuity to the flow of sap.” In practice, this means consistently cutting on one side of the plant. Thus, all of the dried wood that forms as a consequence of pruning cuts remains separate from the other side, where “the flow of sap remains clean.”
Initially Simonit found it difficult to convince others of the merit of the system. “In the beginning, they – the universities, the academics – were very focused on other aspects [of vine health]: clones, rootstock, which were also very interesting for big business.”
Eventually, however, Simonit's work came to the attention of two professors – Attilio Scienza of the University of Milan and Laura Mugnai of the University of Florence.
Mugnai specializes in plant pathology. In 2008 she began to collaborate with the Fruili pruners in studying the relationship between pruning and wood infections. Experiments proper began a year ago.
Mugnai’s task is “to identify parameters for evaluating whether their method of vine pruning has a direct or indirect impact on the susceptibility of the plant to wood diseases,” such as esca (black measles), a fungal infection that seriously affects yield and vine longevity. “The differences,” Mugnai explains, “could be due to fewer infections, but also, simply, to the fact that the plant’s vascular system is more regular and efficient, and, therefore, everything works better.”
While Mugnai reports that years of experiments are needed to obtain firm data, initial results are positive. “The first indications suggest a lesser incidence of disease affecting vineyards, which are as similar as possible for all measurable characteristics, if pruned according to the 'soft pruning' method [i.e. that of Simonit & Sirch] for at least three years."
Clearly this could have a significant impact for grape growers and wine makers. In addition, Simonit associates the importance of good pruning with the protection of Italy’s viticultural heritage. “If we want to preserve our patrimony of vines,” he says, and their ability to manifest their particular terroir, “we have to aim at having vines that age well.”
Believing, thus, in the vital importance of their profession, Simonit & Sirch have established the first Italian pruning school, of which there are now 10 branches throughout the country. These training centers host four-day courses in pruning. It's not possible to master pruning in a few days, Simonit says, but students nevertheless learn “to reflect on the consequences that may be caused by incorrect pruning.”
Currently around 50 wineries in Italy and Europe are using Simonit & Sirch's method. Mattia Vezzola, director and winemaker of Bellavista in Franciacorta, hired Simonit & Sirch five years ago to train his staff – “there weren’t any, and there aren’t any, masters of pruning” in the Franciacorta region, he says.
For Vezzola, soft pruning ("potatura soffice" in Italian) is a winner. “Pruning is a wound. Therefore, the smaller the wound, the less the plant suffers, and the longer it lives.” In addition, and following Simonit's proselytizing, Vezzola has noticed a superior understanding of, and interest in, pruning among his workers. “The people who work at Bellavista today have a much more profound ability for critical analysis of pruning,” he says. "There’s enthusiasm, there’s passion for pruning.”
The testimony should please Simonit, given his desire to renew the profession. But, in the end, it is the plant itself that matters to him most. “I like to understand how it works,” he says, “and how to have a relationship with this plant, without destroying it, but with love, with passion, and striving to understand how to make it live better.”
“Afterwards, I also like wine, but most importantly, I like the plant.”