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June 2014 Issue of Wines & Vines

Determining impact of hand or machine leaf removal on fruit quality

by Dr. Patty Skinkis

Our vision of the 2013 growing season was one of easy success in July, two months before harvest. There was limited rain and advanced grape development across the state, something that had been rare in recent years.

practical winery vineyard

However, September proved challenging due to shifts in weather that led to berry cracking and increased fruit rots across much of western Oregon. Questions poured in from industry professionals seeking information about Botrytis bunch rot management and more. Most growers were already using proper preventative measures: appropriately timed fungicide applications combined with judicious cluster-zone leaf removal.

As harvest neared and rains began to fall, heightened concern about fungicide use and pre-harvest intervals (PHI) developed, leading to discussions about cultural management techniques such as leaf removal and culling damaged fruit.

Leaf removal has been well-studied worldwide by numerous researchers (including work conducted in my program at Oregon State University). Those studies varied from the impacts of leaf removal on vine growth to impacts on fruit ripening, berry composition, wine quality and disease potential.

A trial that compared manual and mechanical leaf removal was of particular interest to the industry in 2013 for several reasons: sunburn/heat damage, disease management and labor shortages. Many growers in Oregon have shifted to mechanical leaf removal during the past few years because it can reduce canopy management costs.

We estimate hand leaf removal to cost approximately $270 per acre on average density vineyards (1,245 vines per acre).1 Mechanical leaf removal costs of $25 per acre compared to $130 per acre for hand leaf removal has been reported in California’s Central Coast vineyards with vine densities ranging from 908 to 1,089 vines per acre.3

Perceived drawbacks to mechanical leaf removal include damage to clusters, reduced precision compared to hand-removal and the potential for leaves to remain lodged in dense canopies. Development of new leaf-removal technology and equipment has reduced many of these concerns.

Leaf removal
Leaf removal conducted at bloom in 2011: (B) mechanical leaf removal on the east and west sides of the cluster zone, and (C) leaf removal by hand on the east and west sides of the cluster zone.

However, applied research is needed to determine how mechanical leaf removal affects key aspects of vineyard production so that growers can make informed management decisions when shifting practices from manual to mechanical methods. This article summarizes relevant findings of a trial conducted to compare hand and mechanical leaf removal in Pinot Noir during 2011, one of the coolest and wettest years in Oregon’s recent history.

Prior to 2011, research was conducted across several commercial vineyards in the Willamette Valley (2008 to 2011) to determine impact of early season leaf removal on powdery mildew (Erisyphe necator) and Botrytis bunch rot (Botrytis cinerea). Results showed that early season leaf removal reduced powdery mildew and Botrytis incidence and severity of clusters when compared to no leaf removal (Skinkis and Mahaffee, unpublished). That research evaluated hand leaf removal only.

Since many growers are switching to mechanical leaf removal, concerns have been raised about applicability of mechanical leaf removal early in the season (bloom or fruit set) without resulting in cluster and berry damage. This led to evaluation of whether hand and mechanical leaf removal would cause cluster damage and influence fruit set, yield, fruit composition and disease incidence when applied at different phenological stages during the 2011 season.

Mechanical and hand leaf removal methods were compared in a commercial vineyard in the Dundee Hills AVA. The vineyard was planted to Pinot Noir (clone 777) grafted to Riparia Gloire rootstock in 1997 at a vine density of 3,015 vines per acre. Vine rows were oriented north-south and trained to a vertically shoot positioned canopy.

Leaf removal was conducted at three phenological stages: bloom, pea-size and bunch closure. Leaves were removed from both the east and west sides of the cluster zone at each of the three phenological stages by using hand labor or mechanically using an Avidor leaf puller attached to an over-the-row tractor. Treatments were applied to plots of 12 vines in a randomized complete block design with six replicates.

Due to the nature of the season and the commercial vineyard’s management policy restricting the use of specific fungicides for Botrytis control, a non-leaf removal treatment was not implemented. However, a third treatment where leaves were removed at bunch closure from only the east (morning) side of the cluster zone was implemented for comparison (an industry standard practice), and leaves were removed either manually or mechanically.

Leaf removal was performed at the start of each time point with clean-up passes to remove new leaves or laterals produced in the cluster zone during each successive phenological stage in the study. Vine growth parameters were monitored including fruit set, leaf area, yield, yield components (cluster weights, berries per cluster, etc.) and pruning weights. Fruit maturity, berry phenolics and incidence of Botrytis bunch rot at harvest were also measured.

Results from this one-year trial indicate that there is little difference between hand and mechanical leaf removal in terms of level of disease incidence on fruit, vine productivity and fruit quality.

Beginning leaf removal too early in the season raises concerns about reduced fruit set resulting from potentially lower carbohydrate availability to developing flowers or from mechanical damage to inflorescences.

Mechanical leaf removal conducted at bloom reduced fruit set by 11% compared to hand leaf removal at bloom and all other phenological stages using either method. This was not a major concern as fruit set was generally high across all treatments, and yield at harvest did not differ among any treatments.

Despite similar yields across the trial, average cluster weight was lower for treatments where leaf removal was conducted a t bloom (125 g) compared to leaf removal at later phenological stages by either method (140 g and 135 g for both hand and mechanical leaf removal at pea-size and bunch close, respectively).

When comparing the timing of leaf removal conducted on both sides of the canopy, there was no difference in the percent of clusters with Botrytis or the percent of berries within the cluster with Botrytis infection. This suggests that earlier leaf removal did not help reduce the presence of the disease.

When comparing the impact of side (east only compared to east and west) and method (hand versus mechanical) of leaf removal at bunch closure, method of leaf removal had greater impact on the incidence of Botrytis at bunch closure (p=0.0436) than the leaf removal on a particular side of the canopy (p=1.0000). Hand leaf removal resulted in 10% lower incidence than mechanical leaf removal at that time point.

However, when looking within infested clusters, there was no difference in the percent of berries within cluster that were damaged when comparing between hand and mechanical leaf removal. On average, both hand and mechanical leaf removal treatments had 13% of berries showing signs of Botrytis infection at harvest.

Applying mechanical leaf removal early in berry development is a concern, as it may cause physical damage to clusters, particularly in early development stages such as bloom. To address this concern, we quantified the number of damaged clusters following each leaf removal pass.

The type of damage caused by the mechanical leaf puller varied with when leaf removal was performed. Bloom leaf removal resulted in removal of tips of some clusters, and leaf removal at pea-size or bunch closure resulted in berry splitting on only the smallest clusters. No clusters were completely removed by the mechanical leaf puller.

Damage to clusters appeared to be less when leaf removal was initiated at later stages of development, but this was not statistically significant (p=0.1607). Physical damage was greater in the mechanical leaf removal treatments (with 6.9% of clusters per vine damaged, on average) than in hand-removal treatments, which had only 0.5% of clusters damaged (p<0.0001). At most, only two clusters per vine were damaged in the mechanical treatments that were considered to be of little practical concern.

When visually comparing vineyards that are mechanically and manually leaf removed, the two often appear quite different with respect to the openness of the cluster zone, particularly when trying to clear both sides of the canopy.

However, when the amount of leaf area remaining on vines after each time point of leaf removal was quantified in the study, there was no difference in hand and mechanical leaf removal except during the earliest phenological stage (bloom).

Hand leaf removal vines had 28% lower leaf area per shoot (p=0.0109) than vines receiving mechanical leaf removal at bloom. This is likely due to the smaller canopy size as compared to later stages.

Later in the summer, shoot leaf area at bunch closure was quantified, and there were no differences between the leaf area remaining by timing or method of leaf removal. As expected, there were no differences in vine pruning weight at the end of the growing season. Adequate canopy was maintained in all treatments, and vine vigor was not impacted by the amount of leaf removal performed.

The leaf removal method and timing did not influence berry ripening in 2011. There were no differences in basic maturity indices (TSS, pH or TA) or in berry anthocyanin, phenolic or tannin concentrations at harvest.

Other leaf removal studies conducted in the Willamette Valley of Oregon from 2008 to 2012 found similar results with respect to fruit maturity. Results of the 2011 trial did not show differences in anthocyanins (color) with earlier leaf removal.

Research conducted by J. Lee and P. Skinkis where leaf removal was conducted at different phenological stages on both sides of the canopy showed greater anthocyanins with bloom time leaf removal when compared to removal at bunch closure.2 Differences may be due to vine canopy differences, season or clone.

Leaf removal is an important practice in vineyard management. However, the best use of this technique depends on production goals and site-specific characteristics of the vineyard. Based on four years of leaf-removal research conducted in the Willamette Valley, it is apparent that conducting leaf removal earlier in the season can keep fungal pathogens at minimum (Skinkis and Mahaffee, unpublished).

The greatest impact on fungal diseases was found in years with high disease pressure (2010–11). In years such as 2013, which started out dry and warm, less aggressive leaf removal was generally applied to avoid berry sunburn or heat exposure. This may have made conditions for Botrytis worse later in the season with reduced fungicide penetration or airflow into the cluster zone.

While hand leaf removal still seems to be the preferred method for clearing the cluster zone by premium wine grape producers in Oregon, realities of labor shortages have become a major concern to getting these practices done in a timely fashion, if at all.

Alternatively, some growers who utilize both mechanical and hand leaf removal in different vineyard blocks reported that labor crews were less willing to harvest fruit from areas where mechanical leaf removal was done, as it was harder for them to see clusters and efficiently work compared to areas where hand leaf removal resulted in better exposed fruit.

The combined results from numerous leaf-removal projects conducted during the past four years indicate that there is flexibility in the timing of leaf removal based on achieving desired fruit parameters at harvest. However, initial leaf removal should be conducted no later than bunch closure to avoid late-season sunburn issues and to enhance disease management.

This experiment was part of a larger project funded in part by the Oregon Wine Board and the Viticulture Consortium-West.

1. Julian, J.W., C.F. Seavert, P.A. Skinkis, P. VanBuskirk and S. Castagnoli. 2008 “Vineyard economics: establishing and producing Pinot Noir wine grapes in western Oregon.” Oregon State University Extension Publishing. EM8969-E.

2. Lee, J. and P.A. Skinkis. 2013 “Oregon ‘Pinot Noir’ grape anthocyanin enhancement by early leaf removal.” Food Chem. 13 9: 893–901.

3. Vierra, T. 2005 “Mechanized leaf removal shows good results.” Practical Winery & Vineyard Journal. March/April: 48.

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