24 January, 2000

Special sacrament of Champagne

One day the holy Vincent stopped in front of a wineyard to speak a few words with the peasants there. In the meantime his donkey ate from the young branches on the wine. Now at the following wineharvest it was obvious, that the wine had much more and better grapes, where the donkey had gnawed, than where the branches had been left in peace. This is how the donkey of the holy Vincent invented pruning the wine.

The stick of the holy Vincent and the leftovers from New Year

It may not be the true story of why Saint Vincent is the guardian saint of the winegrowers, but I am sure it is the best. Other - and perhaps more prosaic explanations - point at the fact that the first syllable of his name is vin. Furthermore his nameday - the 22nd of January - is a time, that at least in earlier days gave a natural break in the work in the wineyards, because the pruning normally only started after Saint Vincent.

And this is way the day of the holy Vincent is a natural day of party in all little winevillages - not only on Champagne - but all over France.

Partyday in Verzy
In Verzy the big party of the year begins with mass in the local Saint-Basle. This is were the stick of Saint Vincent - the batôn - is collected. The procession is formed on the square in front of the town hall. The bakery, that delivers the brioche, is conveniently placed on the corner.

We sense the spirit of party already before we have made it completely downhill. All - or anayway a big part of the 1000 inhabitants - are in the streets to participate in the procession and maybe have a drink or two at the target of the defilation, one of the cooperatives of Verzy. Others will go on and continue with the common meal in the salle de fëte and maybe even all the way though the dance tonight.

But that is for later, for now the official members of the procession find their spots in the already defined order. First the orchestra, then the flag and the desguised children, Saint Vincent and his carrier and finally la confrerie, the brotherhood, the local guild of winegrowers and makers. All of them dressed in the same blue shirts, black caps and big, white aprons. They carry the special sacrament of Champagne.

Bread and wine.

Or the local interpretation: Champagne and brioche.

Since the procession only demands active work from nine brothers, four to carry the barrel, another four for the brioche and the last one for Saint Vincent, a number of others share samples with the locals. And I suppose, that it is this part of the party, where some documents draw a direct line from these Saint Vincent parties and all the way back to the dionysic bakkanals and their sacrifices of wine.

The samples are given in the pipette, that is used in the caves to taste the different wines. The principle is: You lean the back of your head backwards, I pour until you tell me to stop.

Now thinking about it afterwards, I am not quite sure that it is comme-il-faut to keep on swallowing until your husband draws your attention to the fact that you are not obliged to empty the thing. In that case this is not the first time, I meet the differences of Danish and French drinking cultures.

The procession on its way downhill to the cooperative.

To the sound of intense tooting and drumming the procession finally and at a brisk trot moves downhill to the coop of the day.

This is where the brioche will be eaten, this is where more champagne will be consumed. There will be speeches and distribution of diplomas for those who have qualified themselves during the year. The party goes on in the village hall with more food and wine and music all day long.

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More photos at Tange-Gerard blog

20 January, 2000

Annual facelift of the vine

To prune is an important part of securing the health of your wine.

The big job of the winter in the countryside in Champagne is to prune the wine. The main part of the growth of last year will be cut of all 31.000 hectars with the lucrative plant. And all is manual, so with around 8000 plants per hectare, the pruning is a rather big task.

We have got 36 rows of Pinot Meunier to deal with. They have been planted for more than 30 years ago by Alains father, uncle and grandfather. And there is no reason why they should not continue the growth for the next 20 years. That is, if we take care of them nicely and we are lucky to avoid serious disease.

A careful and thorough pruning is no garantee against all evil that kan harm a wine. However it is an important factor, because it ensures the continued balance of the plant. The real art of pruning is to achieve the right balance between growth and fertility, between the number of new branches and the number of grapes.

In average you spend five minutes per plant when pruning.

A wine hibernates in the winter. Only when the plant wakes up again around the month of March, it needs energy again to begin the growth of the season. When the leaves are completely unfold - sometimes only in May - the sun can deliver the necessary energy via the photosyntesis: When the rays of the sun meet the green leaves, the plant will form sugar, which ensures the further growth and later matures the grapes.

Until then the wine lives and survives due to its own latex. In the autumn the latex flows downwards in the plant, the amount of water diminishes, which makes the sugar more concentrated. This changed inner composition helps the plant to survive the frost of the winter. In the late winter/early spring the juices of the plant goes upwards again, and when it reaches the buds, the wine wakes up and starts its preparations to open.

The rise and fall of the latex
Since the energy - the latex - in the winter is a limited resource, the winegrower must secure that it is used in the best possible way. The idea of the pruning is to leave as much old tree as to save enough juice to feed the number of buds, you want. No more, no less. This is how you secure just the production of fruits that you need. What remains of the energy will secure the growth of branches and the important leaves, that later will supply the energy to mature the grapes.

The resting buds on the branches have been formed last year. They constitute the basis of the grapes, we will pick next autumn. The normal rule of thumb states between 12 and 15 grapes per plant. Just enough to fill the 75 centiliter of one standard bottle of champagne.

Help from the big shovel
Extensive disease, crop failure or advanced age can make it necessary to renew from the bottom. If it is a case of a few diseased plants, you will give them a helping hand towards their final death. If it is a case of a greater plot, you will send for the big yellow earth-moving machinery.

Renewing a parcel of wine completely helped by the big shovel.

Depending on the condition of the soils a wine may develop very long roots. The important thing is how far it must seek before it finds water.

In this plot a few hundred meters outside Verzy it is only a matter of around one meter, before the chalklayer starts. Since the chalk contains the moisture, a wine needs, these plants have had no need to grow very long roots. Which is why the driver of the machine expects to remove most of the roots from these old plants. A job that is quite a bit more complicated with very long and extended roots.

When the plants have been removed, the soil for optimum results must lye fallow in a couple of years or three, before you plant new wine. Then you wait further a couple of years before you build the climbing frames. When the soil lies fallow it regains strength but also you avoid passing disease from the old to the new plants.

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17 January, 2000

To prune is for the brave

The only intelligent piece of work in the wineyard is the pruning. A quote from Alain. During this period it is a clear advantage to keep your head close to the ground and focus your thoughts on what is going on on the other side of the scissors. This is the time to make it more easy for ourselves in March when the branches are attached to the wires. This is the time to make harvesting of the grapes more simple. This is the time to renew the wine so it keeps on developing grapes of great quality not only now but also next year.

The theory is simple. We mainly grow red Pinot Meunier-grapes, and they are pruned according to the Vallée de la Marne-method: You've got an old tree stub with a mess of young branches going out in all directions. Only two of them and a small bit will survive the pruning.

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight buds counted.

An old, a new, a bit
The first thing to deal with is the old branch with its greyish, wooden surface. A number of branches have grown from this old branch since summer, and the best one will survive the pruning in a length of eight buds. All other young branches will be removed. From these eight buds the new production of what will become grapes will develop. Should there be two branches that qualifies as the old one, it is normally the younger one that will survive. The older one will normally have grown so much, that its growth could bother that of the neighbouring plant. These elder branches often have a diameter of several centimeters, so they require a quite determinated meeting with the scissors to let go.

The productive old branch will be accompagnied by a young, brown and still bendable branch, that - still according to the pruning-theories - has developped from last years bit. The young branch will be cut at a length, that allows it to surpass the lower wire with just one bud above. However it must not meet the young part of the old branch in order to let the buds of both branches develop quietly. Next year this new branch, that during the year will develop a rough, greyish surface, will replace this years old branch.

The last thing to do is to prepare the bit, that will deliver material for the young branch of next year. A last and strong branch will be cut off right in the middle between the second and the third bud. And this is how you renew a wine. Quite simple.

The young branch must reach over the lower thread, but not disturb the productive part of the old branch. Alain checks.

Theory and reality
With theories however you often experience that they often seem more fit for books than for reality. Which is the case with wine as well. In reality not two plants can be treated 100 percent the same. You must understand the special conditions of not only each plant but also of the neighbouring plant, before you can decide how to deal with each one.

The only fixed condition is, that the majority of the branches must be removed. How many and in which direction depends on the condition of the particular plant but also that of the neighbour: Is it alive, dying, too young?

If the neighbour for one or the other reason does not grow enough grapes, your current plant must produce grapes for two. Which you enable it to do by leaving two old branches instead of one. They will be bend and later attached to the wires in both directions, each of them left with eight buds for the grapeproduction.

Another type of problem is when the branches, that have developped from last years bit, are too weak or grow too far away from the center of the plant. The latter is dangerous for the production, since the tractors, that cut off leaves during the summer, easily break branches, that are not close to the wires. To prevent this such a branch will be abandoned no matter it may be both strong and healthy. Instead a less healthy branch in a less marginal position will be chosen. Are there no good branches to choose from, the least bad will be used.

You need to do some thinking before you can finish cutting.

An art to clean thoroughly
We renew the plants all the way through and strictly stick to this principle. Alains great idea is that the wine develops better, if it has been cut thoroughly. Extra branches, extra buds will give more work several times later in the season. Also it will spread the energy of the wine instead of letting it concentrate only on what is necessary.

A bunch of young plants are clear examples of bad pruning. They are around five years old and should during their first three-four years have grown enough to reach the wires. But that has not happened. Typically because they have been allowed too many branches. If the guy who did the pruning instead had chosen and stayed with only one strong branch, this one would have grown much longer during the year.

Wrong or bad pruning means smaller, less or - worst case scenario - no grapes. Instead the neighbouring plant will have to produce double until the new plant is ready to perform.

This plant has two old branches, because a neighbour does not grow grapes.

Dead branches
One more parameter is important. Once you have found the branches you need, you will have to make sure that they are healthy, and you better do it before you have spend time cutting all other branches off. Otherwise this too will endanger the potential of your plant.

For the non-experienced wineworker - such as me - all branches are brown or greyish in the case of the elder ones. For Alain however a glimpse is enough to judge a what seems to me healthy and sane branch dead as the dodo. The test is to cut a few centimeters off the branch and check the core. And sure as Christmas will always be green and wet in Denmark you will find a brown and yellow core instead of a healthy green one. Only 20, 30, 40 up to 50 centimeters down the branch and closer to the stub you may find signs of life. But normally a branch that much shorter will not be able to supply the necessary eight buds. Which is why such a halfdead branch must give way for another, even if this one at first glimpse seems more fragile.

This ability to perceive disease and death, where everything seems just fine for the person who is not skilled, is what you call experience.

The big scissors are used to cut off the oldest branches.

Experience, guts and strong hands
Alain is able to sense this real condition of the wine, but is hardly able to explain what makes him spot diseased plants or branches. Why does he stop in front of this particular plant but not the next one? It has to do with the colour, with the strength, with an idea that something is wrong here, but for a non-skilled person as myself there are no hard facts to learn by heart.

To become experienced you more than anything need time. Just like the best wines. Experience develops as you year by year study the looks of the plants, the development of the plants and compare these with your own work with the wine.

With your experience you need a certain courage. There is not much left on the stub once you finished with your scissors, so you better believe in yourself and the decisions you made regarding the pruning.

Finally on top of experience and courage, you need a bit of something as simple as physical power in your hands to be able to cut the thick branches. Then at last you are set to go joining the winterarmy of wineworkers, who right now are busy pruning all the wine of Champagne. Thoroughly or not

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Wheel barrow constructed of an old oil barrel, used to burn the cut off branches, that otherwise would have to be carried away. You also keep warm with a mobile fire next to you, but must accept smelling petrol for days.

Grapes left after the harvest are rotten first then dried out. Cut off material can only burn, if the grapes are completely dry, which is a problem this year.

14 January, 2000

Plastic fantastic

Off goes the small plasticstaple.

The first job of the year in the wineyards is to collect plastic. Not the little broken pieces, that mingles with very wet chalk, mud and pieces of wood on the narrow lanes between the plants. They will stay forever. Their unbroken collegues from the wires though must be collected, before the pruning of the plants can begin.

Which is why we are here, under a sky almost as grey as the winter in Scandinavia, instead of sitting nicely in front of someones fireplace, video or other, more cosy and definitely warmer things to do on a day like this. But a lot however comes down to wearing the right clothes, so with my mother-in-laws homeknit hats, 20 year old skiing jackets and similar vintage-equipment we stand the cold through the couple of hours, the days still remains sort of light.

A wine is a plant that needs something to climb in the beginning of the season of growth. Later the new branches needs help to carry the weight of the grapes. Otherwise they may break. This is why you construct these solid wires that are seen in every wineyard around. They consist of iron posts, dug well into the ground, and a number of vertical metal threads, on to which the old branches are tied in the early spring. Later in the season the thin summerbranches can climb and hang on to these threads. This is where the flowers and later the grapes will grow. If you want everything nice and orderly in your wineyard, you may find it a good idea to invest some hard work doing these wires right, which is what everybody do anyway. Row up and row down with exactly one meter and 20 centimeter between them, the wires are spread allover the wineyards of the area.

The staple keeps the metal thread together.

The job of the staple is to keep the two next-upper vertical threads together. Each of them is fastened on the iron post but one on each side, which leaves a hole in the middle. This is where the young branches of the year are supposed to come up. In this way you can keep them nicely along the wires instead of having a jungle of branches, some pointing east or west and yet others north or south. A mess like this endangers them in the summer, when tractors are driving up and down the rows. At this time of the year all work is manual. The juices of the now sleeping plant are concentrated in the oldest part of the branches. The rest of them will be cut off during the period of pruning.

Before however the staples must be colleced. In our 36 rows of wine this would take one person around the day, less time for Alain as experienced and impatient and more for me as being unskilled and interested in learning. However since Alain already in December has begun collecting the little things we can finish in around two hours. Which is nice since my toes after two hours of work start to change colour from pink till slightly blue. The result of spending these hours in the company of a very cold and rather extraordinary wind for this area.

På dansk

13 January, 2000

Promising new year

New prestige product of La Vigneronne.

Off goes the golden hat, then follows the metal thread, ready with your glasses and one-two-three plop: Cheers for the new year and for the old one as well, since the future of it looks bright as summer sunshine. Three months after the grapeharvest the impressions from the early autumn seem to last. The grapes of 2004 really were extraordinaryly good. The president of our cooperative repeats this merry message one last time before the turn of the year in the latest news bulletin from La Vigneronne.

The young wine rests in the 24 big steel tanks in the upper level of the basement of the cooperative. The grapejuice fermentated into wine during the first weeks after the harvest. Since then some of it has gone through another fermentation - the malolactic - the aim of which is to balance the acidity of the wine. At La Vigneronne it is typically the wines of the blue Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir grapes that go through this proces.

In March the wine will continue its journey towards developing into a real champagne. It will be pumped into another tank and yieldst, sugar and the clay bentonit will be added to be used in the second fermentation, that takes places in the bottle. This is where the bubbles will develop. But before this, the wine expert of the cooperative, the oenologue Laurent Fresnet, regularly tastes the different wines before he decideds how he will compose the final products.

The final result is known from the start: In a number of months or years it should meet the six-seven different types of champagnes, that la Vigneronne produces, each with its distinctive taste. One of the most important commandments for a champagne is that it must always taste the same. The means are if necessary to blend different of the wines of the members, also from different years if needed.

Only the best years are not blended, and only those years have the right to present themselves with the year and the quality brand Millésime. Laurent Fresnet has since the harvest several times repeated that the quality of the grapes seemed to be good enough for a Millésime, and since now the president repeats the M-word too, we may also start to believe in the good news.

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