How to create an espalier vineyard

Design it, prepare the soil and install the training system

Inspirations / How to


Estimated reading time 5 minutes

An espalier (also called “counter-espalier” or “row-based”) vineyard utilises a training system in which the plants grow along a vertical support structure (made up of posts, wires and stakes) that runs the length of each row.

Espalier is the vine training system that is most widely used here in Italy, as well as the most modern and mechanisable method of cultivating vines. Espaliers have multiple variant designs, such as Guyot, double-arched, spur-pruned cordon, free cordon, Sylvoz and Casarsa. The variants essentially differ in terms of the height (from low to medium) of the vegetation and the pruning system adopted, which determines the configuration of the foliage and consequently the arrangement of the wires on which the vines rest. Below you will find some guidelines for planting an espalier vineyard.

Espalier vineyard: start with a design

It pays to start off on the right foot by designing the setup of your espalier vineyard, preferably with the support of an agronomist:

  • Choose the grape variety that you want to grow and the rootstock.

  • Decide the planting density (number of vines per hectare) and planting layout (distance between rows and between plants).

  • Define the training system.

The choice of grape variety depends on the soil, climate and overall environment (exposure, etc.), as well as any legal constraints. The optimal density depends on your locality, as well as on the training system, planting layout and grape variety. Taking into account the useful dimensions of your land (including a buffer strip around the perimeter), calculate how many vines to plant, the number of rows and the number of plants per row, based on the planting density and layout.

Identifying the right training system is crucial: whether you choose espalier or another system, it will determine the structure, productivity, quality and manageability of your vineyard. Choosing the right system also depends on the vine variety that you want to plant, the rootstock, the fertility of the soil, the climate, the result you want to obtain, and the possibility of mechanising jobs on the vineyard, not to mention local traditions.

In addition to espalier, there are numerous cultivation systems including pergola trellis, tendone trellis, head-trained and married vine: follow the link to find out more about vine training systems.

Preparing soil for an espalier vineyard

The ideal time to plant the vine seedlings (rooted cuttings) for your vineyard is during the vegetative rest period, between late autumn and the end of winter, so you have until autumn to get your land ready for transplanting the cuttings.

The soil should first be prepared to accommodate an espalier vineyard (or other training system):

  • Clear existing vegetation: It must be cut down and uprooted, as the roots may transmit parasites and toxins to the cuttings. Any old vineyard posts and wires should also be removed and the land preferably left fallow for a couple of years before replanting, so consider keeping it grassed in the meantime.

  • Shallow ploughing: This is a less invasive process than traditional digging, and displaces soil without bringing less fertile layers to the surface, in contrast to subsoiling (deep ploughing).

  • Stone removal: Disinterring and eliminating rocks, stones and the like on uncultivated land makes the soil easier to work and facilitates both the planting and management of espalier vineyards. Depending on the case, it can be done with specific machines or by hand.

  • Basal dressing: Fertilisation based on chemical and physical analysis of the soil, which is intended to improve fertility and correct any deficiencies. After shallow ploughing, it may be sufficient to bury mature manure or compost with light ploughing or hoeing.

To remove trees, shrubs and weeds from your prospective vineyard, a chainsaw, brushcutter and flail mower are indispensable. When the work is done, you will have a quantity of wood available that you can repurpose as firewood, mulch, compost and more: here's how to dispose of green waste, select firewood and light a fireplace, and make your own compost.

If your espalier vineyard is small enough to fit in your garden, then instead of resorting to agricultural machinery to prepare the soil, you can use a rotary tiller both to soften the soil (with the help of a plough attachment) and to bury organic matter.

Prepare the necessary materials for building vine support structures in the quantities you estimated during the design stage. One tool that can help you effortlessly transport whatever you need to plant your espalier vineyards is a transporter:

  • Head posts and intermediate posts in metal, concrete or wood

  • Supporting, secondary and anchor wires (typically in galvanised steel)

  • Ground anchors

  • Metal, PVC, wood or bamboo stakes

  • Various accessories such as wire tensioners

How to plant an espalier vineyard

Once the ground is prepared and the materials are in place, it's time to set up your espalier vineyard by following these steps:

  • Square the vineyard: Delimit the boundaries and align posts and plants along the rows. You can do this with precision systems, or simply with string and a long tape measure.

  • Pegging out: Mark the position of the posts and vines using pegs (or otherwise bamboo or reed canes, which you can obtain by clearing a reed bed with a brushcutter).

  • Install the posts: The head posts (the tallest and strongest ones) at the ends of the rows, as well as the intermediate posts along the rows, should be driven into the ground mechanically or by hand. In the latter case, you can first make holes in the soil using an earth auger, then beat down the posts using a sledgehammer.

  • Plant the rooted cuttings: You can simply create holes using an earth auger, then insert the seedlings, fill the holes with the excavated earth, compact the surface, and water. They can also be transplanted mechanically.

  • Assemble the wires: You need to create a sturdy support structure for the vines, by positioning the wires at the heights required by the training system. For example in a Guyot vineyard, the load-bearing wire, which is the thickest wire and supports the fruiting arm of the vine, goes 80-100 cm from the ground. Two more wires should be installed above it for the vegetation, one 30-40 cm and the other 70-80 cm above the load-bearing wire.

  • Install the anchors: These tension the support wires of each row. Secure them in the ground outside the row, then fasten them to the head posts with tightly tensioned wire.

  • Install stakes and fasten to the load-bearing wire (with specific stake clips or some rubber tubing): One per rooted cutting, to support it and ensure that it grows vertically.

To manage your vineyard you’ll need to spend a good part of the year on various activities such as disease monitoring. One of the main vine diseases is powdery mildew, which you can prevent by applying sulfur and other active ingredients using a mistblower: you can learn more about this in our article on preventing and treating powdery mildew.

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