01 February, 2000

Vallée de la Marne in the frost

Bare wine after the pruning (left), more brown before (right).

My new hobby - from the passengerseat in our four wheel drive - is to spot whether and how the wine has been pruned. The thin but still white layer of snow of this weekend provides a good contrast to the long, brown rows, a good help for the eye.

Now of course it is not that great an art to manage counting the branches after the plants have been pruned and left nice and easy on their never ending rows with just the necessary amount of branches and buds for the season to come. It is much more demanding to find the structure of the plant - before the pruning - in the confusion of long branches and leftovers of now completely dried out grapes.

Whether the branches still chaotically point at all corners of the world or have been almost completely cut is a matter of geography rather than human energy.

Eksposed for the cold
Mainly the local, meteorological conditions decide when the wine will be pruned.

In Verzy we are on the cold slope of the plateau Montagne de Reims facing North. All of January people here have not been too busy pruning. Whereas on the slopes of Côte des Blancs - facing South - people prefer to be finished by the end of February or beginning of March.

The trick is to finish exactly on time: Not too early, it is good for the wine to rest a while, where it is not manipulated at all. But also not too late, if the latex in the plant has begun rising, the plant is much more exposed to the dangerous frost, that may still occur in spring, through the growing buds and wounds from the pruning.

Since a slope exposed to the North is cooler than one exposed to the South, the plants normally wake up later here in Verzy than in Côte des Blancs.

The horizontal old branch is the cordon.

Different methods
On our regular weekendtrips between Verzy, where we live, and Soulieres, where we work, we see at least three of four possible ways of pruning.

  • First - in Verzy - we see the Cordon de Royat, one long and old branch - the socalled cordon - from which four new branches will survice the pruning. A little bit is left too, to ensure renewal of the plant next year. This method is allowed for all types of grapes in Champagne and for all classifications too. Also this ancient area of wine, where Pinot Noir is king and furthermore grand cru.

  • Later the highway between Louvois (grand cru) and Vertus (prémier cru) on the southern side of Montagne de Reims is bordered with Chardonnay. This is the Côte des Blancs, stronghold of the white grapes, that are almost allways pruned following the Chablis-method. This means that three old branches and a bit for the renewal of the plant or two old branches, one new and the bit will survive the pruning.

  • Finally we - during the work of the saturday - reach all the way out in the periphery of Côte des Blancs. This is where our grapes grow, and they are - rather rare these places - red Pinot Meunier-grapes. We own rather new and unclassified land for wine, and are for this reason authorized to use the Vallée de la Marne-model - a very simple way of pruning - where only one old branch is left for the production and a new branch and a bit for the renewal of the plant.

    The last allowed way of pruning is called Guyot - it ressembles the Vallée de la Marne and is mainly used in areas with a big risk of frost. It is authorized for all types of grapes in Champagne, however only those with a lower rank. In France you do not find much, that is not regulated by law, and least of all wine!

    Rules for everything
    The system has been build by politicians and winegrowers and -makers during the last hundred years. The system of autorizations and appellations is ingenious. It regulates which grapes to grow where, and how much money you will be payed for them. It sets the rules for how many plants you can grow per hectare, and how much and how you can manipulate them down to a detail of how you attach the plant to the wires.

    Grapes with a lower classification can be pruned in a more simple ways. A higher classification - for instance grand cru - means that you are paied more per ton of grapes, and that your final product is likely to be more expensive though not necessarily better.

    Our rows dressed in snow are young. In fact they are younger than the classification system, which is why they do not even have a classification.

    Work ahead
    The rows have not gone through any major change since last weekend. Alain sees it immediately still in the car 100 meter further down the road.

    Pruned wine is well-structured, and you have a good unobstructed view through the rows. Wine that has not been pruned however mainly consists of a brown chaos of branches with a much more dense and impenetrable impression.

    The man from Vertus, who has helped with the pruning the last couple of years, has had a bad back all January, so his effort is limited so far. Ours too, with Alain working with other things in weekdays and me being trained.

    We still have another 80 hours before pruning is finished, Alain evaluates. He would like to see the tempo up in February. Our wine is exposed to the South, so it better be pruned before we get too far into the month of March.

    The limits of wisdom
    Even finishing before it is too late is important, some weather conditions are too extreme for this work. The temperatures of the last days a couple of degrees below zero are just around the limit of when it is smarter not to work in the wine.

    One young branch too much, otherwise classic Vallée de la Marne.

    Even the plant is still hibernating heavily, too much cold can actually damage the wine, especially if it has just been pruned. The risk is bigger in the first one or two calendar days after pruning, until the wounds have healed. Apart from this, the wine only gets really fragile with frost when the latex starts rising in early March. At the same time the buds start to wake up, and if they freeze badly enough, they simply die. No grapes from this bud this year, anyway not on time.

    This is why the professionals allready when minus three degrees Celsius or less have been announced start to take their precautions. One possibility is to wake up at 2-3-4 a.m. - before the coldest time at night - to put little fires next to the wine to help it keep warm and without damage. There has also existed systems to spray water on the wine. The idea is that water freezes before the latex, and that the coat of ice will help protecting the plant. Precautions however does not always do the job... As late as 2003 frost as late as April killed buds and about one third of the harvest potential of the year.

    I feel my advance. I feel quite familiar with the old branch now. Should I cut it completely or keep it for the coming-up season? Is the youngest branch on the old one good enough to provide the buds we need for the necessary average production of grapes per plant? All the branches at the bottom and on the sides I determined cut off not even bothering to ask Alain anymore.

    Then comes the more difficult part, the new branch, that preferably must be placed on the forked branch prepared last year for this very purpose. However it is not always, the prepared stuff develop as you wish and expect, and if it is not the case, you must find better material to work with instead. I am close to being able to detect this very problem now, almost allways without ending up with a dead branch or a fragile one that breaks too easily. But I still cannot figure out excactly how to twist the branch to decide where to cut it. I spend minutes wandering: Should I cut just one bud over the lower metalthread or leave as many buds as I can, just securing that this branch does not catch up with the new and productive part of the old branch.

    Aiming for diploma
    These two branches will in a couple of months be tied to the systen of metalthread carrying the wine through the season, but allready while pruning you bend them to see how they suit each other. The younger branch will be shortened according to the judgement, so it is rather important that you are able to judge. Which I am not. Yet.

    But I am sure it will be a great help for my imagination when I - with ten thumbs, plastic clamps and a roll of bast try to attach the wine myself. So far I am only up for the pruning, and I am most certain I will get it now. In my more bright moments I hope to be able to get a diploma of my new skills. A training course of 70 hours in pruning - practical and theoretical - ladies and gentleman - in the profesionnel wine school of Avize. In French.

    Which is why my clear aim is to learn as much as I can this pruning season. Including spotting a Vallée de la Marne or Chablis passing by on the road.

    A true veteran of Verzy

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