A cut above the rest

The wet weather failed to dampen sprits at the UK’s second annual vine pruning competition, which was held on 28 February 2020 at Tinwood Estate in Halnaker, West Sussex. 

Viticulturists from across the South East gathered to battle it out for the prestigious awards of individual and team pruning champions of the year. Alongside the friendly rivalry, the annual event provided a wonderful opportunity to catch up with fellow growers and suppliers, while enjoying a well-earned day away from the estate.

In an industry where much of the of emphasis is placed on winemakers, who usually get all the glory as the ‘rock stars’ of the wine world, the pruning competition shines a light on the viticulturists, the ‘roadies’, who supply the quality grapes which are vital for great wine production. The brainchild of Stephen Skelton, MW, industry consultant and chair of Wines of Great Britain’s (WineGB) Viticultural Advisory Group, the pruning competition follows a tradition found in many other major wine growing regions around the world. 

The WineGB event was once again organised with substantial support from James Dodson at Vine-Works and Tony Purdie, vineyard manager at Yotes Court. Both the individual, a new category for 2020, and the team events were oversubscribed with only one last minute drop out due to the appalling weather forecast. 

In the individual class, 10 pruners including Adam Foden, Ben Conner, Blago Dishkov, Debbie Buckley, Dragos Nitu, Ian Spiers, Matt Strover, Philip Harris, Stephen Skelton and Tom English, went head-to-head. In the team event, 10 groups of three from Chapel Down, Davenport, Gusbourne, Plumpton Warriors, Ridgeview, Tinwood and Vine-Works battled it out for the coveted Champion Team Trophy, which was hand crafted last year by Billy Turner, Hush Heath’s assistant estate manager, from one of the first vines planted there in 2002.

Each competitor and team of three was given a single bay of five vines to prune, pull out and tie down, being judged for proficiency, accuracy and speed in the process. Led by Tony Purdie, the judging panel included Duncan McNeill, McNeill Vineyard Management, Paul Tuteirihia, NIAB EMR, Darryl Kemp, Simpsons, Luke Wolfe, Whitewolf Estates, Ben Fleer, MDCVUK and Sam Barnes,
SJ Barnes and NP Seymour. 

Following last year’s format, each bay was judged blind, with pruners being graded on different criteria such as cane and spur selection, cutting technique and cane tying and trimming. Competitors were timed, but it was definitely not a simple race against the clock, with speed only equating to one fifth of the overall score.

“The standards this year were great and considering they were pruning well-established vines everyone did incredibly well,” said organiser and judges’ steward Tony Purdie. “There are always some bays which are exceptional and that is where they get the marks. The judging was a bit harder this year and I am grateful to all the judges. It was a bit of organised chaos because paper and rain don’t really mix, but we have done everything accurately. I was really impressed with the enthusiasm shown by all the contestants and it might look easy, but even for those with years of experience, pruning in a competition is quite intimidating especially with onlookers and judges ready to critique your work.”

Alongside a nominal entrance fee, the event was generously sponsored by Vineyard magazine, NFU’s Haywards Heath branch, secateurs manufacturer Felco, who were supported at the event by UK agent NP Seymour, vine post suppliers, Hadley Group, vineyard equipment manufacturer, Gripple, and nursery, Pépinières Tourette. 

“Felco are renowned for its secateurs and it was great to see so many competitors using their Felco tools,” said Claire Seymour, partner of NP Seymour, Felco’s UK agent. “They are a premium brand and it is great for them to be involved in the UK pruning competition and to see so much support from them for our viticulture industry. Today has been fantastic, it has been great to watch the competitors and to catch up with so many familiar faces.”

As well as facilitating some impressive prizes, sponsors’ support meant that post-match competitors and team supporters were able to catch up and relax over a pint, supplied by Bedlam Brewery, and a hog roast.

“The weather has been atrocious but everyone is in such high spirits,” said organiser James Dodson, Vine-Works. “The social aspect of the competition is just as important as the pruning. The vineyard team is often forgotten, with winemakers being in the main spotlight, so the event has been designed to allow viticulturists to get together to have a bit of fun and socialise. It is testament to what we do in the UK to have such high attendance in such poor weather.” 

The 2020 champions

The first event of the day was the individual competition, sponsored by Vineyard magazine. Second and third place were awarded to Philip Harris and Ben Connor, respectively, from Davenport Vineyard, last year’s winning team. Both were presented with a Felco goody bag and £125 for second and £75 for third.

The inaugural winner of the UK pruning competition’s individual category was Dragos Nitu from Gusbourne, Kent. Judges commented that Dragos scored very highly in the technical sections, showing his good understanding of fundamental aspects of grapevine pruning.

After being presented with £250 and a Felco goody bag, which included a set of Felco 8 secateurs, a holster, a saw and a diamond coated sharpener, Dragos commented on his victory: “I am very proud; I didn’t expect to come first. I think the timing was important but so was the quality. It wasn’t that difficult but it is very different when you are put in another vineyard.”

Publisher of Vineyard magazine, sponsor of the individual pruning event, Jamie McGrorty said: “Congratulations to Dragos on being crowned the UK’s first individual pruning champion, and well done to everyone who competed in what were quite challenging weather conditions. Vineyard magazine’s sister publication South East Farmer has always supported ploughing matches, which started life as a chance for local farmers to showcase their workers’ ploughing skills. It is incredibly exciting to see an event based on the same principles being held for viticulturists and we hope the pruning competition continues to be a key social date in the vineyard diary.” 

In the team competition, sponsored by the NFU’s Haywards Heath branch, third place was awarded to Vine-Works, who took home £75 and a Felco goody bag each which included a set of Felco 8 secateurs. 

Speaking on behalf of the team, Matt Strover said: “We chose our fastest and best pruners to be in the team event. The pruning certainly looked well and we have all been practicing, being out pruning everyday since the beginning of January. We are used to seeing lots of different vineyards and generally our teams are used to pruning in the way which the customer wants, so in theory they are well adapted to having a specification to follow. The whole day has been good fun and everyone is in good humour despite the weather.” 

Second place in the team event was awarded to Gusbourne’s first team, who were presented with £125 and a Felco goody bag each. Vineyard manager of Gusbourne, Jon Pollard, said he was proud of all three of Gusbourne’s teams.

“Our teams have been doing a fair bit of practice over the last few days and are pretty happy with what they have done today,” said Jon. “When you are standing out there in the driving wind and rain, it is hard to get a feel for how everyone else is getting on but I certainly think it was an evenly pitched competition. Despite the weather there was such a good atmosphere. It is a brilliant event for the industry because some of the vineyard workers can be quite isolated from the industry and it is important that they get to meet people from other estates, see how other people prune, and generally have a chat with other viticulturists.”

Finally, Davenport’s team, Philip Harris, Ben Connor and Tom English, were, for the second year running, crowned the overall winners. As well as proudly retaining their title, taking home the Champion Team Trophy for another 12 months, Davenport were also awarded £250 and a Felco goody bag for each member of the team.

The second quickest team this year, just 27 seconds behind Vine-Works who finished their bay in just 6 minutes and 21 seconds, Davenport were awarded the high scores across the board for cane selection, spur selection and cutting technique, with judges commenting that Davenport’s bay of vines really “stood out” from the rest.

Commenting on the team’s success, Philip Harris, vineyard manager at Davenport said: “It is a really nice feeling and such a surprise; it has been a surprise to win both years. There are only a few of us, we are a tight bunch and we had a good time. We have had to change our pruning style for this competition, because the judges want slightly different things, so, normally we wouldn’t leave a spur unless it was on the sap flow. It is a great day out and we have really enjoyed it. We have been practising a little bit at work, but once we were here it was so different and once you start pruning everything goes out of the window. We are just a small team and winning is such a lovely feeling.”

Teammate Tom English added: “We are just a bunch of mates who enjoy working together. We have fun every day at work and the fact that we can come and meet people and have a bit of friendly competition with other people in the industry is brilliant. It is all we could ask for really.” 

The third member of the team Ben Connor commented: “I really enjoyed the event. It is about coming out to do what we do for a large chunk of the year, but in a competition. It is great to come away with some prizes.” 

Sponsor of the team pruning event was NFU Mutual, Haywards Heath branch. Annie Streeter, viticulture and specialist insurance agent for the NFU Mutual commented: “Well done to everyone who took part in the 2020 UK pruning competition and congratulations to Davenport; what an impressive achievement to have retained the title as team champions for the second year running. I was thrilled to be asked to sponsor the UK pruning competition. In support of the industry, the NFU Mutual is an official partner of WineGB and the Haywards Heath branch has a long-standing relationship with Vine-Works. As viticultural insurance specialists, we are committed to supporting growers and are proud to work closely with some of the English wine producers who competed in the event as their insurance providers.” 

It was also announced at the event that Philip Harris has been invited to represent the UK at the inaugural international vine pruning contest, organised by Felco for its 75th anniversary. 

“Being invited to compete on a world stage and to represent our UK wine industry is an incredible honour,” said Philip. “I can’t wait to be up against the world’s best and I expect the competition to be fierce. It will be a great experience.”

Philip will be competing against top pruning experts from the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, New Zealand, Portugal, Slovakia, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland and the USA. 

“The fact that Philip Harris has been invited to compete at the international pruning competition is amazing and it is once again helping to put UK viticulture on the map,” said Julia Trustram Eve, marketing manager at Wines of Great Britain. “It is great that we are hosting the sort of events which have been happening on the international scene for many years and that is enabling us to show what our viticulturists are capable of.”

The international pruning event, which was due to be held on 10 March 2020 in Switzerland, has sadly been postponed due to the coronavirus. In a statement Felco said: “In light of the current European and global epidemic of the COVID-19 coronavirus, and the uncertainty linked to the global spread of the virus, as well as cases detected in Switzerland, Felco has the responsibility to anticipate risks to our employees, subsidiaries, partners and visitors. In this type of situation, it is best to side with safety, and caution must be applied, especially as over 70 international guests and 150 Swiss based guests planned to travel to the Neuchâtel region. For these reasons Felco has taken the decision to postpone the international pruning competition.” 

The future

While the UK pruning competition was organised to celebrate the industry’s talented and hardworking vineyard technicians, it is also hoped that the results of the competition will help to promote industry wide improvement.

The most important task of the year, pruning needs to carried out correctly and efficiently to help secure a long-term, sustainable and good yielding vineyard. With many growers in the UK now focused on gentle pruning methods, chief judges’ steward Tony Purdie said that future competitions may be adapted.

“Next year we will be looking for another good venue to make sure all the regions are covered,” said Tony. “The WineGB Viticultural Advisory Group will once again put our heads together to look at the pruning styles and whether this can be updated. A lot of competitors follow gentle pruning methods, which follows the sap flow and organic growth of the vine, but they have to revert to old pruning method to compete in this event. I think we need to develop a contest around those new principles because the gentle approach really makes the best sense in the UK where wood disease is one of the biggest viticulture issues. In a year like this, for instance, everyone is suffering. If you are painting your wounds it is difficult to cover them with paint and if you normally spray you can’t get into the fields with any equipment.”

Going forward, the organisers of the UK pruning competition and the WineGB Viticultural Advisory Group are hoping to host a pruning seminar to look at the different systems as well as the best techniques for UK conditions.

“We are also hoping to further expand the competition, possibly developing more of a national event, where machinery suppliers could showcase the latest vineyard equipment,” said James. “We also want to get more people involved but to progress the competition we really do need more support with the administration and organisation. We know we can build on it, and will just see how it grows each year.”

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