29 April, 2000

The first leaves

Chardonnay opens before both Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. This year is no exception.

The first Chardonnay-leaves of the year, Trépail in Montagne de Reims.

Look, how the rose-coloured bud has opened more and more, and the first fine leaves of the year are ready to unfold underneath.

It is already a couple of weeks ago, we could see, how the white Chardonnay-grapes on the southern slopes above Vertus were opening. The last week I have observed, how the Chardonnay of Montagne de Reims does not lack much behind the Côte des Blancs.

The production of leaves in Trépail in full swing.

The development of the plants may differ greatly. This is due not only to the type of the wine - whether it is a white or a red grape - also the general health of the plant and the type of soil beneath the plant matters.

This is why you even in the same row of plants see very different stages. Some plants are already developing their second set of leaves whereas others have not yet unfolded the first ones.

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26 April, 2000

Ricard wants to sell Mumm in China

Two of the grande marques of Champagne, Mumm and Perrier-Jouët, are amongst the wellknown producers of vine and alcohol, that right now wait to know who will be their new owners. The decision may be interesting for the future.

Today the two brands - based in respectively Reims and Épernay - belongs to Allied Domecq. But the british group is up for sale for the best bid, which only last week seemed to be that of french group Pernod Ricard. 10,7 billion euros for brands such as Ballantine's, Malibu, Stolichnaya and Beefeater. Besides the champagnes. A purchase, that would make Pernod Ricard the worlds secondbiggest group on wine and spirits, and the partner, Fortune Brands, a world number four.

But now the competitors want to join in. The american group Constellation Brands, the biggest winegroup in the world, currently considers its possibilites of making a bid, and the giant, british Diageo, may wait in the wings. And Allied Domecq is certainly not untouchable. A better bid from someone else in the last minute may involve, that Pernod Ricard looses its spoil.

However, if the French succeed, it will be Pernod Ricards entry ticket to the champagneindustry. Today Mumm and Perrier-Jouët is mainly sold on the french and the british market. But it may not remain so forever. Chairman and CEO Patrick Ricard last week said to Le Figaro, that he plans to keep the champagnes, because international customers - he names China - buys more and more of the french prestige wine.

Last years rise in the export to China with its 86 percent certainly seems to offer an interesting potential for the champagnehouses in the future.

Whether Pernod Ricard will get a try selling Mumm in China or not, is future music so far. In the end of June the shareholders in the two groups will decide on the offer, which in case of "go" can be finished in the end of July or early August. That is, if Constellation Brands do not succeed persuading Allied Domecq to change side before the last act.

Read more at Independent, Bloomberg.com eller CNN, interview with Patrick Ricard at The Telegraph or numbers in the official export statistics (PDF).

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22 April, 2000

Popes are cheered with champagne too

The past week offered a rare but through 2.000 years frequently recurring event - a new pope has been chosen - and how would you celebrate this in a more appropriate way than sharing a glass with the cardinals? The bright red circle of princes of the catholic church, to whom the former cardinal Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI, belonged just moments before.

They celebrated the election with champagne. Is it possible to imagine better publicity for the French bubbles? Completely for free and distributed to media all around the world by newsmachines as the Associated Press and BBC World.

Once again it has been fixed that the most festive of occasions get just a little bit better when accompagnied by le roi du vin, le vin des rois: champagne. Now I would like to know, what they drank the other night in the Vatican-home of-conclave-hit-therefor-homeless-cardinals. And this is a fact kept totally secret.

As we do not know, how many votes send the nestor of the cardinals to the Holy See, we do not know, who voted for him, and also the excact mix of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier in the glasses is kept in the dark.

But cheerful it must have been. A multitude of media tell, how the newly elected Benedict XVI after having received the tribute of the crowd on Saint Peters Square in his new outfit invited the cardinals to join him in a common meal in the Vatican conclave-home. This is where the cardinals live - cut off from the outside world - while they are in the process to choose a new pope.

The menu was simple, says Associated Press. Beansoup, cut meat, salad and fruit. The nuns, that take care of the meals of the cardinals, of course could not in forehand be told of any dinnerplans, so they did not have time to prepare anything special. But they remembered to cool the champagne!

Some of the cardinals have told, that even songs were sung after the meal. A difficult project when you count the many different nationalities and languages of the cardinals. So they finally chose one in Latin. Cheers.

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12 April, 2000

Attached to vintage 2005

Ladies and gentlemen, let's attach.

The long and laborious pruning of the winter is over, and we are just about to finish rolling through the rows on the next manpower demanding task in the vineyard: Attaching the wine.

The attentive reader with a good memory may still remember that the wine - if it like ours have been pruned in the Vallée de la Marne way - after this rather exhaustive shave now consists of only two branches and a little bit, that does not interest us now. These are the leftovers that now are to be attached to the wires. Vintage 2005 is on the move, and the ride takes place in a rather peculiar vehicle.

On a low but sturdy little bench on heavy wheels you move from plant to plant. Your advantage is that you do not have to consider other ways of working such as crawl on your knees or bending up and down all the time in front of the 1,2 meters tall - or should I rather say low - ironposts, that carry the wires of the wine. However, you must be prepared to bring your chariot back on the track regularly.

The steering system of the chariot is rather poor, but it is well upholstered and the heavy wheels easily force their way through wood chip, even uphill.

Conveniantly seated on the upholstered bench of the chariot you stop in front of the wine, while you catch one or the other of the two branches. On the old branch the outermost of last years new branches has survived in a length of eight buds. The other and new branch is just long enough not to bother the old one, when they both in a short while will be attached to the bottom row of metal thread. A task, that contributes to the general order of the vineyard.

Ingenious invention
A wine is a liana - a plant that wants to climb - and it will grow in all directions and angles, while looking for something to attach itself to. This is why the vineyard is furnished with ironposts with kilometres and more kilometres of metal thread retained between them. This is where the well pruned wine will be attached in the first part of April, just before the wine begins its growth again.

Three attachments per plant are enough for the Pinot Meunier. For the other types -the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir - the attachment as well as the pruning is slightly different. Meunier needs one attachment for the old branch, another one for its young branch and the third and last one for the new branch. If you need more, you are not good enough... yet. At least that is our rule, checking the work of the neighbours I can see, that the number varies a lot. Even I try to do only three attachments per plant, I count myself really lucky not to work on the official piecework in the business: 90 hours per hectare. We have around five kilometres of wine to deal with, and that adds up to only 2/3 of a hectare.

The old branch is attached. The hook of the lieuse is ready in the loop.

The principle is rather simple. You put a piece of string around your branch and the lower thread. Then you place the hook from the special tool that you use for attaching - la lieuse - in your loop and pull all the way through. Backwards. A movement, where you move your arm 20-30 centimetres backwards and a lot longer than you expect is necessary.

The string you use consists of wire with a layer of paper around it. This you can tie up with a twist, when you use the lieuse. Yet another of the many very specialized tools of this metier. The tool has two parts: One with a hook, that more than anything has a similarity with a small hand drill, and the other one, that resembles the part of a three-in-one cutter for your nails.

You typically begin with the old branch, continue with its young branch and finish with the independant young branch. This is the time you will know if you made the right choices as you did the pruning.

The cutter to the left.

Exercising the wine
The old branch is by far the more easy one for a beginner. You will tie it up where it meets the lower thread in a angle around 90 degrees. This means you just tie straight away, you normally do not have to force it in any direction against its natural growth.

Worse with the two next branches of last year. They are young and actually rather bendable, so it should not cause major problems to bend them 90 degrees against their natural inclination without breaking them. But you better believe that you are right as you carefully press the vertical branch down in a more and more horizontal position, that makes it crush worse and worse. When you have finished your job, the branch is either broken or it follows a rather parallel line along the wire. This is when you can put your second or third attachment.

If you end up with more than one bud over the wires, you cut it off. You simply never pay your vineyard a visit without the proper tool, so always carry your scissors for pruning. This time of year a clip will make the latex flow. It does not cause problems though, as long as you do not get frost the following night.

Concentration please: No broken branches. No loose attachments and preferably in a steady beat.

Here and there the layer of bark creak in an unpleasant way, while you check your will against that of the branch. But even if cracks here and there reveal a light green layer under the brown, normally only branches with disease will break.

Now is the time, where you will be confronted with wrong decisions made during the period of pruning. Diseased or weak branches that should have been rejected but were not will break. It does not influence the amount of grapes, because the new part of the old branch normally will be healthy and this is where the grapes are produced. However, if the other young branch breaks, it means, that the renewal of the plant will be postponed yet another year. The old one must fight itself through another year on its own. Just like in real life.

In the little box on your chariot you carry everything you need to get going for the liage: Your string, your lieuse and your scissors.

Old attachments will stay forever.

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11 April, 2000

Chardonnay at bursting point

Chardonnay at Vertus facing South are opening.

The new year of the wine is arriving these days. On the steep and southernly exposed slopes exposed just outside Vertus the first Chardonnay-plants have sensed the approaching spring. In the mildest corners the first buds are at the brink of bursting. Our Meunier-plants are not - even exposed to the south too - not that comfortable, and they are also not as developped.

But they too are awake and have been busy at the interior level of the cells for quite some time, started by more light and warmer temperatures. The overwintered nutrients in the old part of the tree have been mobilized, and the latex has risen to feed the buds, until the leaves are unfolded, thus able to take over the assignment.

The first exterior signs of life are, that the buds swell, and push the brown flakes aside, that have protected the bud throughout the winter. The tender buds covered by an extra layer of woolen protection peep out. As the bud continues its growth the first leaves are seen, not yet coloured green by the sun. Later the twigs will grow as long and rich with leaves as they are allowed to.

Parameters for growth
Several parametres influence when the buds will burst to let the first two leaves of the season peep out. The geographical orientation is important. Wine on a northern slope will burst later than wine on a southern slope. But also the variety matters. Thus the white Chardonnay-grapes start before the red Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Finally your choice of porte-greffe matters.

All wineplants in France are grafted. On the top you find the wine, that produces the grapes - in Champagne Chardonnay, Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier - on the bottom always an american type of wine, because they are resistent to the disease phylloxera. It is this supporting structure, that is called the porte-greffe. You choose your porte-greffe according to your type of soil, and that choise influences whether the wine will be an early bird or a slow starter.

You can also influence the development chemically. Some chemicals will delay the development of the plant in one or two weeks, others will speed it up.

Early pruning a matter of orientation
Finally the time of the pruning matters. If you prune late, it will delay the development of the wine at least for some days. If that is a factor when the pruning is planned, I do not know. But throughout the winter we have followed the big differences in when the pruning are carried out in two of the winedistricts of the region.

In the Côte des Blancs - where the Chardonnay rules - the work has started much more early than in Montagne de Reims, where the northern oriention and the Pinot Noir mean a later development and more time. Here the rule of thumb is that pruning only starts after Saint Vincent on the 22nd of January. At this time the winegrowers in the Côte des Blancs had already worked for 1-2 months. They do not have much else to do in November and December, but in February they are busy with ploughing, harrowing and sowing their other crops. In Montagne de Reims they only do wine.

Almost everybody however is finished now. Both with the pruning and with the attaching of the wine. Very few plots are not ready for the new year, and for this industrious majority there is not much left to do apart from waiting. Maybe lend an ear or two to the predictions of Meteo France of the temperatures of the coming night.

Frost is now the enemy
It is now - right at the bursting point of the buds - that the night frost, which is still a major risk, can destroy a greater or smaller part of the potential of the year. As soon as the buds have burst and have grown a day or two, the new leaves are hardened enough to resist temperatures below zero.

Only three percent of the vineyards of Champagne are protected against frost with lamps, irrigation systems or other frostfighters. The rest must rely on their evening prayers. Maybe I should begin to consider this possiblity too since after all twice in 10 years we have lost some of the potential due to late frost.

Two landmarks of Vertus: Saint Martin and Mont Aimé.

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