28 February, 2000

Localization of loose-jointed iron

Alain paces out the rows while checking the iron posts.

Our wine is just about cut as much down as it should be at this time. We spend a howlingly cold last sunday of February to check the seemingly endless climbing frames of the wine. They must be strong and ready for the time when the wine will need it.

Operating a vineyard takes the thoroughness and handiness of the gartner much more than the more mechanical and technological skills you use growing the other crops in our area. Regarding the wine the tasks seem endless in numbers both before and after the hibernation of the wine. They just vary with the seasons.

A bit of mental arithmetic reveals that we have got at least six-seven kilometres of wire fences to check. Broken iron posts must be replaced and destroyed wires too. Today however we settle for the checking part only.

First shake one way, then shake the other...

The ironposts alternately are shaken seriously through. If they yield much more than a few centimetres on each side, it is because, they are broken. The enemy is the frost. If water succeeds penetrating the iron, it will burst if it freezes to ice. Afterwards the post reaches a stage as loose-jointed as a rag doll.

We manage our 36 rows in less than an hour. The total: 60 iron posts and three wires to change is not that bad. After all it is a couple of years ago, that the condition was thoroughly checked the last time.

Alain always seems to find an unnecessary bud to cut.

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24 February, 2000

More champagne for the people

Good news for all lovers of champagne: The production will be raised. This announcement was given only few days after the news, that the sales of champagne last year passed 300 million bottles. Now the industry tries to avoid to superheat the market. That is to act before you may get a market with too many buyers for too few bottles.

A small majority in the board of CIVC - Comité interprofessionnel des vins de Champagne *** see below *** - has agreed to send more still wine on the market. This means, that ordinary wine without bubbles similar to 1.000 kiloes of grapes per hectare will be sold from March 7th. Producers can from this date buy more wine for their production of champagne.

Quantity or quality
The final product we will not see for sale neither in the small private shops at the winegrowers houses nor in the supermarkets in the near future. An ordinary bottle of champagne most mature at least 15 months. Only after this period the bottle will be finished and prepared for sales.

A standard champagne with no year must mature at least 15 months.

However... it is difficult not to worry a little bit when one of the CIVC-presidents, Patrick Le Brun from the winegrowers organisation (SGV), according to the local paper l'Union will prefer to see a "... growth in value rather than volume". That is - in the long run - he wants to sell less but more expensive bottles.

Don't call for crises
Should we dare, we could look a bit further south - to Bordeaux for instance, the wellknown wine area, that currently groans and moans with the weight of its poor sales performance due to big stocks with expensive wines, that less consumers want to buy. With this in mind the pipe dream of the president can leed to minor spasms for small families, that consider making the pretty grapes their fulltime living.

Could one possibly imagine, that also the market in Champagne might fall over. It has happened before, actually not more than 15 years ago in the wake of the Golfwar, when the prices went down in line with the sales. So far we see no signs of eeriness. The sales have been fine also in January this year, and the prices are quiet. May it stay that way.

Shoulder at shoulder in box on top of box.

*** CIVC: Professionl unit that - manned with representatives from the big champagne houses and from the winegrowers union - controls the champagneindustry. They communicate with the French ministry of agriculture on one side and the growers and producers on the other. During the harvest the CIVC gave the permission to deliver 1.000 kilo per hectare on top of the normal quota of grapes. This is also where it is decided, when the different areas may begin the harvest.

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21 February, 2000

Icy fingers of King Winter

Fighters of the winter along the road at Avize.

We are in the middle of February, and a funny phenomenon has emerged on some of the plots along the highway between Louvois and Vertus. Little oil lamps - about half the heigth of the fence - has been put up with only a few metres between them up and down the rows.

They are not lit. So far they just stand there as an ominous mystery army of metal, but they are not. Not at all. On the contrary they are entrepreneurial winegrowers weapon against the first enemy of the year. The cold and icy hand of King Winter.

Frost in spring is the enemy
Champagne is geographically so Northern, that the area is just around the limits of where you can grow wine on a major professional scale. Here is just about the necessary amount of hours with sunshine to mature the grapes. But also cold winters with risk of frost in the night as late as april.

Snow in Côte des Blancs.

During the coldest months of winter the wine protects itself. Its growth has stopped, and while it hibernates, the plant is protected by its hardened branches and its concentrated latex, that has a much lower freezing point than the normal and more watery juice. Also part of choosing the right variety of wine for the area is to take the cold winters into account. In Champagne all three grape varieties - Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir - will stand frost at least 15 degrees Celsius below zero. With even stronger frost the vine may simply fracture, but that is very rare.

Much more serious and unfortunately also more common is the frost in spring. More or less one year out of three, it causes problems, big or small. The critical time is when the buds open around March-April. Only when they are two days old they can stand temperatures lower then zero. This means, that frost in the period inbetween is a bit of a kiss of death, that may destroy any imaginable percentage of the potential crop. The buds are burned, the winegrowers say. On top of the poorer harvest add that frost in general weakens the wineplants.

Now the winegrowers are allowed to keep a certain amount of litres of wine per hectare as a reserve. In some cases this can be used if the harvest fails, which means that a bad year due to for instance frost does not necessarily mean a smaller production. Before this system of stocks was introduced inventive solutions like the little lanterns in Avize have been used to help the tender buds keeping warm in a critical period.

Little lamps and small windmills
The coldest wineyards are the lower ones; cold air sink, and since the frost is more severe at the level of the soils, the lower fields are more exposed to damages.

The windmills at Avize are to put the cold air in motion.

Especially the most Southern area in Champagne - the Côte des Bar - is in the risky zone of frost. But also Avize and le Mesnil - two Grand Cru villages of the Côte de Blancs - are exposed, because part of their wineyards lie in a both low and flat area. And this is excactly the place where we at the spot of the lamps but on the other side of the highway see a chain of windmills with the same mission.

The mills are little buildings, several metres tall, brick-built and with 20-30 metres between them. When their electric airscrews are rotating, they set the air in motion, whip the cold air in the artificially made turbulence upwards and away from the plants. Just the fact that someone actually found such a rather fundamental solution suitable, gives an idea about how important it was and still is in some places to fight the frost.

The lamps burn with the help of paraffin, oil or gas. Some of them are so advanced, that they if critical temperatures occur ignites themselves. Rather nice, especially at night, where your main alternative is to park your car in the outskirts of the wine and spend the night there. This enables you to get out regularly to check the temperatures. And this is not just a sort of romantic memories from the days that were.

The cheap homemade solution is oil in a can.

A close friend of our family whose wine grow in le Mesnil between Avize and Vertus enjoys his retirement not any longer getting up to light little lampers in the middle of dark and freezing winternights. An old uncle never used neither lamps nor anything else: These solutions are only for those with the cold low and flat fields, he says, and refers to the pollution. Obviously you pollute when you burn oil or any other combustible liquids no matter if it is in a can or the specially developped chaufferettes.

Constant irrigation
The third weapon against the frost is to install a real sprinkler system. The principle is during the frost period constantly to irrigate the buds with water. This prevents their temperature in dropping under zero. The system is very effective, but it does use 50 cubic metres of water per hectare per hour. On top of that you must monitor it very often. A sprinkler can fall over, and should this happen, the wet buds will be utterly lost in the frost.

Irrigation, lamps, mills... or simply nothing. The critical period normally only endures very few days. In 2001 the champagnehouse Moët et Chandon irrigated their endangered parcels two nights, when the temperature fell to minus 4,5 degrees Celsius. Almost 20 years before that, they had to irrigate six nights. With the general warmer climate the inventive antifrostmethods have become less crucial for many. Also the reserves of wine, that you may use if necessary and if permitted - like in 2003 - instead of the wine of the year - have made the winegrowers much less dependant on their entire harvest.

However not more independant than the fact that widespread frost in 2004 could have meant economical problems, because the reserves were almost empty. Maybe this is why some winegrowers keep a good grip on their little lamps and electrical airscrews.

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The cans spread out through the rows with few metres between them.

Salesrecord in Champagne

Alain promotes the sales of Le Vertueux in Paris.

It is not an easy job to excite a farmer. That goes for Champagne as well. Even for those who are lucky to grow wine and not wheat. However, it has been rather difficult not to rejoice since the greatest harvest as long as anyone remembers. It is not going to be any easier now the worldwide sales last year turned magic 300 million bottles.

All in all 300.621.591 bottles left the chalky caves of the region during 2004, a bit less than 2,5 milllion more than the year before. Most of the bottles - six out of ten - pops in France. And for the rest the major export markets are still the United States, Great Britain, Germany and the Benelux-countries. But surely the marketing staff of the big champagnehouses already gazes at exotic regions such as Japan, China and Russia.

Advance in distant areas
The sales of champagne to such far away horizons grew six percent last year, in Singapore alone more than 200 percent. Which of course is not a great deal, if you start real low. However, it points to a certain intereset probably worth a follow up.

The record of Champagne clashes with most other wine areas of France. Most of them with economic crises hanging black and heavily after now yet another year with decreasing sales abroad. Apart from Champagne only Cognac managed to increase exports in 2004.

A bunch of rosées ready for the party.

Champagnelovers with a particularly good memory may object, that 327 million bottles were sold already in 1999. But that does not count, according to CIVC, the official organisation of the champagne industry. Too many of those bottles spend the turn of the year in a storage rather than popping it off at the party of the millenium, says Daniel Lorson of CIVC to French newsagency AFP.

More figures in the official export statistics.

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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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