The Seasonal Growing Pattern of Champagne Vines - For The Love Of Champagne
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The Seasonal Growing Pattern of Champagne Vines

Champagne’s grapevines, whilst subject to a seasonal growing pattern like any other vine, differ by the method by which they’re maintained. Hands-on, meticulous attention to detail is paid to all aspects of every vine to avoid damage to the vine’s growth and maximise its potential to produce a quality crop.[1] The challenging growing conditions of the world’s most northerly climate for cultivating grapes has fostered a spirit, amongst the vignerons, of hard work, traditional methods and comradery.[2] The following explores the seasonal growing pattern and how vines are maintained, in more detail.

The season of spring

Annual seasonal growth generally commences with budburst in May.[3] At this time, daily and rigorous maintenance is key to producing a successful crop.

The season is potentially fraught with great challenges. Frost presents a real threat to buds, especially when temperatures plunge to sub-zero conditions. This year, in 2017, the mild weather in March caused vines to begin developing earlier than average. Budburst occurred in April, rather than May, exposing them to freezing conditions. Early development is thought to be the effect of global warming and one that is likely to regularly reoccur in the future.

As part of daily maintenance, vines undergo desuckering, where non-fruitful ‘suckers’ (shoots) are removed to foster fruit-bearing shoots and leaf growth.[4] The leaf emerges and then unfolds, stage-by-stage, from the tip of the bud. ‘Lifting’ also occurs, where shoots that are 50 centimetres long are lifted by hand and attached to wires running 30 centimetres above the support wires.[5]

In June, trellising by hand takes place to separate shoots and improve leaf distribution. This, in turn, allows light to pervade the foliage, bringing with it air to filter around and preventing rot.[6]

The season of summer

During summer, maintenance continues to foster growth of quality fruit.

From mid-June, flowering takes place. However, this can be delayed until early July if preceded by a particularly cold or extended spring.[7] Flowering takes between six and eight weeks after budburst.[8] Weather during this time is important; requiring warm and dry-ish conditions to allow the flower blossom to emerge and be pollinated and fertilised. Fertilised flowers develop into berries. Without these kinds of conditions, the berry ‘set’ may be too small or may fall away. [9] It goes without saying that this would have a significant impact on the size of harvest.

At this time, ‘pinching’ occurs (by hand or machine), where leaves are thinned and new growth cut back so that the vine places its energy into ripening the grapes.[10] The removal of leaves is at the discretion of the vigneron who must decide the balance between gaining sun exposure and ensuring enough protection from hail and sunburn.[11]

Berries develop over two stages; commencing with a hard, green stage and then softening into fleshy and colourful grapes, having been fully ripened.[12] This second stage begins approximately four weeks prior to harvest and is known as véraison.[13] Ripened berries possess higher levels of natural sugar, reduced acidity as well as phenols and aromas.[14] During this time, workers continue to clear away weeds so as to prevent them from taking vital nutrients away from the vines.[15]

The last few weeks of ripening can manifest all kinds of danger for the vintage due to Champagne’s unpredictable weather.

The season of autumn

Typically, harvests take place in September or October, but have occurred as early as late August, largely due to the warmer growing conditions now affecting Champagne.[16] Harvest is declared when grapes reach optimal development; an acceptable balance between sugar and acidity. They may then be removed by hand. It’s a time when the Champenois literally come together in a sign of solidarity and cooperation to achieve the hard work that lay before them.

Once the last berries have been picked and pressed, and harvest is over for another year, the vines settle and lignification occurs, where shoots produce canes. Canes are very robust and can guard themselves against frost in winter, which allows them to prepare shoots for the following spring.[17] Leaves then begin to age and fall away, leaving vines to fall victim to the cold and become dormant.

The season of winter

As temperatures plummet in November, pruning becomes the focus of the season and continues until December. There are four pruning systems permitted in Champagne, however, Taille Chablis (Chardonnay) and Cordon de Royat (Pinot Noir) are the most common.

Growers and vineyard managers cut back long shoots to clear the way for fertilisation to take place along uncluttered rows. Shoots are burned in part to create potash and added to the soil as fertiliser.[18] Fertiliser is important to support Champagne’s relative poor soil profile, allowing vines to search for food during dormant months to support the following year’s growth.

Following fertilisation, ploughing occurs to cover the graft to protect it against very cold weather.[19]

Once the height of the cold weather has passed by January, pruning will resume and then continue until March.[20] It’s a particularly arduous task, with thousands of cuts occurring to vines each day in harsh and cold conditions. Buds are produced and then lay dormant in the leaf axil until spring, when the new growth cycle begins.[21]

Thus, it can be said that the production of quality grapes for the world’s most unique wine is not only a matter of leaving it up to nature. It requires significant hard work and hands-on care from the vignerons to safeguard harvests from the region’s challenging growing environment.

**Photos supplied by the CIVC library and iStock.

[1] CIVC, ‘Four Seasons in the Vineyard’, viewed 21 June 2016,

[2] CIVC, The Keys to the Wine of Champagne, OPV, Verone, 2007, p. 103

[3] CIVC, The Keys to the Wine of Champagne, p. 110

[4] CIVC, Champagne from Terroir to Wine, Empreinte Studio, Epernay, 2010,  p. 18

[5] CIVC, Champagne from Terroir to Wine, p. 18

[6] CIVC, Champagne from Terroir to Wine, p. 18

[7] M McNie, p. 65

[8] M McNie, p. 65

[9] M McNie, p. 65

[10] CIVC, The Keys to the Wine of Champagne, OPV, Verone, 2007, p. 19

[11] K Palmer, Champagne – A Tasting Journey, Openbook Howden, Adelaide, 2016, p.90

[12] CIVC, The Keys to the Wine of Champagne, p. 110

[13] M McNie, p. 65

[14] CIVC, The Keys to the Wine of Champagne, p. 111

[15] M McNie, p. 65

[16] T Stelzer, The Champagne Guide 2016-2017, Hardie Grant Books, Melbourne, 2016, p.31

[17] CIVC, The Keys to the Wine of Champagne, p. 111

[18] M McNie, p.61

[19] M McNie, p.63

[20] CIVC, ‘Pruning’, viewed on 20 June 2016

[21] CIVC, The Keys to the Wine of Champagne, p. 111

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