This voyage in time will lead you through the seasons, through the vines, to millions of tiny bubbles that set the mouth tingling. You will be shown the techniques that go to make sparkling Champagne wine, starting with the harvests and pausing at blending – a particularly critical stage in the wine’s development. The first part of the winemaking cycle turns the fruit of the vine into still wines.
quote>"And suddenly I feel like celebrating, like Champagne." Elsa Triolet.1945.
The Champagne vineyard lies at the northern limit of vine growing, with the winegrowing areas north of Reims bordering on Latitude 49o5 and the most southern at Latitude 48o (Bar-sur-Seine), the altitude ranging between 90m and 300m.
The vineyard lies close to the 10o Celsius isotherm. In the period 1921-1980, the average annual temperature was 10.4oC in Epernay, 10oC in Reims and 10.1oC in Troyes. The climate is ruled by a combination of continental and moderate oceanic influences, usually with fine late-season weather that is particularly favourable for ripening.
Rainfall is spread fairly evenly throughout the year totalling around 650-700mm. Sunshine averages 1600 hours per year, spread across 290 days, but can total 2000 hours or even more in good years (for example, the 1947 and 1976 vintages).
The Champagne terroir: Climate
The vines are planted in limestone or argillaceous limestone soils. The subsoils are chalk in most of the vineyards in the Marne department, mixed with sands in the region west of Reims, marls in the Aisne and Kimmeridgian marls in the Cote des Bars.
Chalk reflects the sun’s rays back towards the plant, and also offers the dual benefit of draining well while acting as a reservoir.
The Champagne terroir: Chalk
Champagne’s predominantly chalky soils make it essential to use lime-tolerant rootstock. The most widely planted rootstock is the 41B (80% of plantings) followed far behind by the SO4 (11%) and the 3309C (5%). There are only three grape varieties allowed in Champagne wine: the Pinot Noir and its cousin the Pinot Meunier (dark skinned grapes that produce white juice) and the Chardonnay (light-skinned grapes that offset the other two). The choice of variety is an extremely delicate issue, aiming for the best possible match between the vine and its environment.
Planting density is relatively high, with a maximum inter-row spacing of 1.5m and an inter-vine spacing of between 0.9-1.5 metres, making a total spacing (inter-row and inter-vine) of no more than 2.5 metres. In practice, the number of vines per hectare generally falls between 7,500 and 9000 – a narrow spacing requiring the use of a tractor that can straddle tight rows. In Champagne, it takes the yield obtained from a single vine to produce the equivalent of one bottle of Champagne.
The Champagne terroir: Location
Map of terroirs, villages and growths
In Winter the festival of Saint Vincent in January is a time to offer thanksgiving for the previous year’s harvest, and speculate on what the next year will bring. Some say you can ‘tell’ how many grapes a vine will bear in spring from the number of berries on ivy. In the vineyard meanwhile, growers are hard at work pruning the vines.
Spring sees the vine awake and produce new growth. The emphasis now is on trellising, topping and crown suckering – a daily round of tasks to improve the prospect of a good crop. The vagaries of climate can change the pace of growth by a difference of more than twenty days, making for a precocious or on the contrary, a late harvest. The second half of June brings the vines into flower, a critical time in the vineyard involving pollination and fertilisation. The weather needs to be dry and warm or the berries may shatter (fail to set properly, jeopardising the harvest.
Summer, from July to September the vineyard is more than ever at the mercy of an uncertain climate. Hot, dry weather, bringing plenty of sunlight for the ripening grapes, also raises hopes of a great vintage. Attention now focuses on restricting excessive vegetative growth and warding off environmental threats.
Autumn is harvest time in Champagne. In theory, the harvest falls around 100 days from the midpoint of flowering but in practice it varies from year to year, ranging from the end of August in 1955, to the middle of October in 1972 and 1984.
The objective is to preserve the life and health of the vine, pruning so as to leave enough foliage for photosynthesis (the process that produces the energy to accelerate ripening). The sequence of vineyard tasks goes as follows:
Pruning takes place from November to March (around 200 hours per hectare). Champagne pruning techniques are strictly regulated, aiming to limit excessive productivity and prune each vine according to its needs. Vine cuttings are immediately burned in a wheelbarrow brazier to prevent the development of diseases and give the vineyard workers some welcome warmth.
There are four approved pruning methods in Champagne:
Vine maintenance: Pruning
What follows are "green harvesting tasks":
Vine maintenance: while the vine is still green
Tying-up takes place from February to April (around 90 hours per hectare). Using special pliers, the vine’s branches are attached to the wires that will support the future crop of grapes. The onset of bud-break marks the beginning of the growing season, bringing the need to restrict overly vigorous growth for the sake of wine quality.
Lifting (120 hours of work per hectare)is carried out before flowering, in two stages between mid-May and the beginning of July. Growth is trained upwards to benefit from the light, raising the fruit-bearing shoots from the ground and attaching them vertically to wires running above the vine.
Trellising involves separating the shoots from each other and stapling them to overhead wires. Rows reach around 1.20m in height.
Lifting and trellising encourage photosynthesis by improving air circulation through the vines – which in turn helps to prevent the damp conditions that nurture botrytis bunch rot. The quality of the crop largely depends on the sugars (synthesized by the leaves) being evenly transported from the vine to the berries.
Crown suckering is the process of removing unnecessary shoots (or sometimes fruitful buds) to favour the fruit-bearing canes.
Shoot topping (around 60 hours per hectare) is essential from July to harvest time, cutting any superfluous shoots that climb towards the light so as to channel the vine’s energy straight to the berries.
Replenishing the humus content of the soil is done by shredding the vine prunings and adding organic matter such as bark compost. Mineral-based fertilizers are also used to prevent potassium deficiency. These practices feed the soil, encouraging the microbial activity on which soil health depends.
Champagne vines like all vines are vulnerable to attack.
Viticulture raisonnée (integrated viticulture) and sustainable development
Sustainable development has been defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of generations to meet their own needs”.
First formulated at the end of the ’eighties, the concept of sustainability is now so widespread that it is no longer possible to ignore its regulatory, social and (increasingly) economic dimensions. In short, sustainability implies a fundamental change in society – a well-nigh irresistible shift that requires a proactive rather than a passive response.
Environmental protection, together with economic and social development, is a key challenge for sustainability, one that Champagne has been ready to face since the launch of its Integrated Viticulture initiative in 2001.
The dawn of integrated viticulture in France came a year later, on 25 April 2002, when the French government passed a law relating to “an integrated farming qualification for farms”. It remains to be seen how this general statement of intent will be applied across other industry sectors, AOC wines being a good example. We do not yet know if wineries will be subjected to an approvals process or if the commitment to integrated viticulture will be written into the Champagne AOC rules of production.
In the meantime, let us remember that the short-term objective is to promote integrated viticulture to the widest possible audience, not just an elite few – eventually aiming to improve the environmental performance of the entire wine community.
Action against spring frosts is occasionally necessary, Champagne’s northerly location making it especially vulnerable to sub-zero temperatures, with young buds most at risk. Protection takes various forms:
The Land of Champagne: 02 - Working in