Fruit-zone leaf removal is typically applied in cool and humid regions to improve grape and wine quality, while reducing disease pressure. When fruit-zone leaf removal is applied early in the season, before bloom [early leaf removal (ELR)], it also reduces fruit-set, cluster compactness, and susceptibility to bunch rot, a complex disease that involves fungi (Botrytis cinerea, Aspergillus sp., Penicillium sp.) and bacteria (Acetobacter sp.). Over 2 years (2015–16), we tested whether ELR applied mechanically [mechanical defoliation at stage E-L 18 (MD-I)] would mimic the effects of a hand removal [hand defoliation of the first six basal leaves and laterals at stage E-L 18 (Coombe, 1995) (HD-I)] with respect to ‘Riesling’ (Vitis vinifera) production parameters, canopy density and cluster sunlight exposure, fruit composition, and bunch rot control. We also compared the effects of mechanical defoliation applied either at prebloom (MD-I) or at fruit-set [mechanical defoliation at stage E-L 27 (MD-II)]. In both years, fruit-zone leaf removal, regardless of method and timing, reduced yield, cluster weight, and berries per cluster, while maintaining fruit composition and bud fruitfulness as compared with nondefoliated vines (control, C). In 2015, HD-I vines had a lower percentage of clusters infected by bunch rot as compared with the C and MD-II vines. However, severity of bunch rot was low in all treatments, and there was not significant treatment effect on bunch rot severity in either year. ELR consistently shortened cluster length, offsetting much of the intended cluster loosening effect induced by a lower number of berries per cluster—that would have reduced bunch susceptibility to late seasons rots. Despite removing only half the leaf area of HD-I, MD-I successfully mimicked the canopy improving effects of HD-I in terms of fewer interior clusters and leaves, fewer cluster-shading layers, and greater light available to clusters and leaves as compared with C vines.
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