CHAMPAGNE BULLETIN MAY 2021
Patience is a virtue
If you ever wanted evidence of how slowly things change in Champagne, you need look no further than the debate around what are called vignes semi-larges (VSL) which, roughly translated, means semi-wide rows of vines.
To see what this looks like here are two photos:
On the left are rows of vines planted in the traditional fashion. On the right, and in fact immediately adjacent to the traditional rows, are the semi-large rows.
There are strict rules about how far apart the traditional rows must be and how far apart each vine must be from the next plant. All these rules are designed to limit the number of vines per hectare and by so doing, to ensure the optimum ripeness and quality of the grapes. Years, even decades, of trial and observation have gone into formulating these regulations and they are not something that can, or will, be altered from one day to the next.
Nevertheless, things in the wider world never stand still and some things are changing that Champagne cannot avoid or ignore, climate change being one example. The fact that, over the past 30 years, the average date for harvesting has moved forward by 18 days is a case in point.
These pictures were taken in an area of Champagne called Plumecoq where the Comité Champagne runs several experimental plots to study potential innovation regarding vine growing.
The trials of semi-large rows were started back in 2005 and it was agreed at that time that the findings of the trails would be assessed in 2030 and a decision taken about whether or not to adopt the new method of planting.
However, there was a clause inserted in the original plan (no doubt at the insistence of some young ‘hot-heads’ who were not content to wait 30 years for an answer and wanted to ‘rush’ things through) that the findings of the trials would be reviewed after a mere 15 years and a vote taken about whether or not to adopt the new planting regime.
Those 15 years were up last year, but with all the disruption to everyone and everything, circumstances were not appropriate for any vote to take place, so it was postponed to this year and will take place in July.
As you can imagine, the subject has given rise to intense debate.
On the one hand, the greater distance between the vines inevitably means fewer rows and fewer vine plants. This, plus the fact that there is more grass between the rows (grass competes with the vines for any available water) means that the overall yield of grapes could be as much as 20% less than with the current method.
Neutral factors are that the ripeness and quality of the grapes do not seem to be adversely affected by the wider rows and there are apparently ways in which the reduced yield could be managed in such as way as not to affect the ability of Champagne to supply global demand for its wines and at the same time meet the economic needs of champagne producers.
On the other hand, the new wide-row system should reduce the production of CO2 by about 20% and thus significantly reduce the caron footprint of the Champagne region.
The new system would also significantly reduce the costs of production.
But there are many other considerations that are not so immediately apparent:
What would be the effect on employment in the area if the new planting system reduced the need for manual labour?
What about the existing equipment such as the tractors (called enjambeurs) which are not only hugely expensive but are designed to straddle several rows at once? Would these be good for nothing except scrap and who would pay for new machines needed for a new planting system?
When I mentioned ‘hot-heads’ wanting to rush through the decision about the new planting system, I was of course being flippant, 15, 20 or even 30 years is not much compared to the history of the industry and nothing at all compared to the vast history of Mother Nature.
In Champagne, decisions taken in haste have a tendency of coming unstuck and whether the debate is about methods of planting vines, about the length of time needed to age the bottles, or about the type of bottles used, I hope that you can now see why things take so long to evolve in Champagne.
Good news on the sales front
Bars, restaurants and hotels are beginning to reopen all around the world and the champenois (as the inhabitants of Champagne are called) have ben waiting to see what effect this would have on demand for their wines.
Well, it’s still early days, but the initial signs are very positive. 18.6 million bottles were shipped this April which represents an almost unprecedent increase of 197.6% versus April in 2020.
Not to get too carried away, one has to remember that 18.6 million is still 800,000 bottles fewer than were shipped in April 2019 which was the last ‘normal’ year and also remember that the month of April only represents about 6% of the annual total (again in a ‘normal year’), but hey, any good news is welcome, and the trend is certainly very positive.
Bad news on the weather front
If you read last month’s bulletin you will know that in early April a bout of spring frost badly affected vineyards right across France. That threat has now passed, but no sooner as one problem disappeared than another arises. It’s true that the ups and downs of fortune due to the weather are just part and parcel of working with Nature, but that realisation doesn’t makes things easier to manage.
May has brought plenty of sunshine but also a few hot, humid days that have produced major thunderstorms and, worst of all, hail storms.
Hail can be very localised and in the worst affected places, can cut a devastating swathe through the vineyards, battering the plants and the grapes.
On 4th June (this should really be in next month’s bulletin) another serious storm hit La Montagne de Reims. As you can see from these pictures, the sky was so black that the street lights came on and then the heavens opened and the rain and hail thrashed down.
It’s too soon to have any precise reports of possible damage to the vines, but you can see from the picture below, how hail can rupture the skins of the grapes allowing rot to set in and damaging the crop. This picture is from a previous year and from a later stage of the year, so with luck, this year the grapes will still be too small to suffer any significant damage. We should know more about this in the coming days.
That’s all for this month’s Champagne Bulletin. I hope you’ve enjoyed the read and will come back in a month to see what has been happening in Champagne in June.
All the best from Champagne