17 June, 2000
The wine is not allowed to grow in the wild.
"Less is more" is a maxime many will connect with all kinds of design. But actually it could also be the motto of any vigneron. In Champagne anyway, since this is one of few French wineregions where we from April and well into July regularly will walk up and down the rows to groom the plants well. That is to minimize them.
We cut off surplus buds and stems, before they get the chance to form the bark. When we in this way trim the plants throughout their phase of growth, we help them to be economical with their energy. This is important in order to avoid that they burn out during their intense growth even before the final burst of speed, where the grapes mature.
The target is not to produce many but good grapes, and since we can only sell a certain amount of kilos of grapes per hectare anyway, we do not want to have too many. But excactly where we trim our plants is an independent judgement for each of them. It means yet another heavy and manual job to perform during the next many weeks.
The wine is fast to make a mess of young stems.
In reality it is the pruning of the winter, that we follow through on in this way. In January we pruned the plants rather throughly. But still there are lots of new stems at the feet and on the old and hard part of the plant. It is not possible to localize all the buds in the winter.
It is just about one month ago, that the first buds of the year began to unfold, and since then the wine has grown with a speed.
The two first pink and crumpled leaves now are already 50 centimetres or more away from their startingpoint. The tallest of them have crossed the top thread of the fence, and we have seen a few winegrowers, that have started to cut the top. That is cut off the stems right over the top thread.
The amoung of leaves has also increased. The greybrown plots of winter and early spring, stamped with wood chips and wine stubs, have been replaced by juicy and green leaves. The amount is well on the way to transform the neat rows to the unruly and dense system of leaves, stems and branches of the summer. Soon we will have to cut the sides too. One of very few jobs in the wine, that is delt with from a tractor. The purpose is to avoid that the rows become completely impassable.
The fast growth of the wine slows down in July.
During this most intensive growth, that normally continues well into July, each stem can produce two leaves per day.
A twist for the stem
So far we have left the wine alone, since we were out attaching back in April. Excactly when you start to trim the plants, is a bit of a personal judgement.
In Champagne you can begin to remove surplus buds in the middle of May - this is what the profesionnals call the ébourgeonnage - others wait a little longer till the buds have developped into stems - in this case the proces is called the épamprage. We go for the latter model.
Mainly because of the big risk of frost in spring. Champagne is one of the northern wineareas of France, and the risk of frost as late as May is a real danger, that may cost you a part of the production of the year if it occurs with the worst possible timing. So we leave the extra buds till the risk of frost is gone.
The work is simply to remove all surplus stems. The plant has two targets: To grow more wood and to reproduce itself. If there is too many green stems in the beginning of the season, the plant will spend too much energy on the stems. There will thus be too little left to mature the grapes properly. Therefor we simply remove the unnecessary stems that otherwise would turn into wood.
Since we still are in the early season, the stems have not yet developped into hard wood. They are green, elastic and completely soft and easy to remove. You just have to twist them a bit, and then they are quite easy to pull of.
The surplus stem get a little twist.
Each stem has to be twisted just a tiny bit before it breaks off nicely at the root. When the green layer later in the summer develops into bark, it becomes a lot more diffucult to remove the stems, so it is important to finish early enough.
Now the question is how to decide which of the stems to remove. The answer depends on how the wine has been pruned.
Follow the Vallée de la Marne-model
Since our Pinot Meunier-plants are pruned in the fashion of the Vallée de la Marne-model, it means, that we trim the new stems in the same manner.
The Vallée de la Marne consists of an old branch with a now hardened young stem from last year in the top. On top of this there is a young branch - also hardened with bark - with a number of new stems, and last but not least the little one with the two eyes, that have now developped two stems.
On top of these basic elements and their new stems you do not leave more than one or two new stems on the plant. One of them will take over the part as the small one at the next pruning. All other stems are to be removed. But even after around 20 will still remain, and each of them will normally carry grapes.
The stems have been removed from the foot of the wine, the old branch at the right and the young branch at the left keep their stems.
The foot is always cleaned completely for stems. No sane person allows the wine to grow grapes close to the ground. One thing is that it in general is more difficult to predict the amount and quality of the grapes at this spot. Another that grapes close to the ground generally get more moisture which exposes them more to disease and insects. Then of course grapes, that grow low, are also a lot more difficult to pick, when we in the autumn reach the vendange.
Also the old part of the plant, the old branch, is cleaned completely for stems, should there be any. You want the latex to go straight for the top to feed the young part of the plant, where the important part of the grapes grow. If there are other stems to feed on the road, some of the energy will be spend and sometimes in vain.
The young branch with its new stems is left alone and the two stems of the little bit too.
Understand your wine fast
So this is the theory, but as in many other disciplines there is often quite a piece to go from theory to reality. This goes for wine too, so like during the pruning, you have to sit down and understand the plant before you can trim it correctly.
Understand, how its special expression of the Vallée de la Marne is all fit together. A plant can have some weaknesses, that means that it has been pruned as it could rather than as it should according to the big textbook of the winegrower. Also a plant is never regarded completely on its own. If the plant next to it is very young or diseased, it may happen, that one plant produces for two. A phenomenon to be considered when you prune but also when you remove stems.
A perpendicular stem has an unfortunate direction and will be removed.
Furthermore some stems are placed rather badly. If they have a perpendicular direction from the fence, the risk that they will brake due to a tractor or storm is close to 100 percent. This is why you might as well remove them, before they have used too much energy in vain.
In fact there is plenty to think about, and we do count an hours work per row of 200 metres. Which leaves you as much as one minute to do three plants. That means that if you follow the official piece rate, you do not have much time left to think too carefully about which stems to keep or which to remove.
In principle this cleaning continues until the growth begin to decrease towards mid July. In the weeks following this first throroughly review it is primarily the perpendicular stems and stems at the feet that will be removed. This job you can perform almost automatically and continuously walking throúgh the plots.
When the stems have grown long enough, they are lifted and fastened. This participates to the genereal order in the vineyard, but it also rectifies the damage, a storm can make.
To lift the vine
The time is not fixed in the calendar. The rule of thumb is something like "go" when 95 percent of the new stems will be picked up by the thread.
The double thread lifted to the first step on the post.
The principle is as follows: Between the iron post are three rows of thread in various heights. The middle thread is double. Outside the season of growth it is put on the ground. But when the new stems after the first intensive growth has reached a certain length - normally mid June - you collect the double thread and place it in the first position on the post.
If the wine is pruned and later trimmed well, this double thread will collect most of the new stems and keep them nicely around the fence. However, this assumes that you choose the right time to lift, and that takes a fine judgement.
If you lift too early, that is when the stems are too short, too many will fall out again. Which leaves you a round of punishment through all the rows to manually and plant by plant to put back each and every stem in the correct way between the double thread.
If you on the other hand lift too late, the risk is that storms or hail may break the stems. After every fall of rain you have the same risk, because after rain tractors will drive through the wine to spray chemicals against disease and insects, which always increase after rain.
If you lift in the right moment, your stems will follow nicely.
The posts have yet another position. A couple of weeks after the first lifting, the double thread gets another lift and the plastic agrafes that we removed back in January will be put back in place to hold the two threads together.
By then the wine is completely fastened for the summer.