Helen’s blog

Thoughts and tastings from Helen Savage, wine writer.

How the CIVC is helping keep Champagne growers ahead of the game.

The Plumecoq experimental vineyard was created sixty years ago by the CIVC – the professional and trade body that unites producers and growers in Champagne. Laurent Panigai, the CIVC’s head of viticulture kindly loaned me a pair of wellies and showed me round. Plumecoq is in a key position in Champagne, roughly at the spot where the Montagne de Reims, Marne Valley and Côte des Blancs sub-regions come together. It was established to try and discover a solution to leaf-roll and fan-leaf (court-noué) viruses. The answer was to produce high quality virus-free clones by clonal selection, a big task with the vine varieties of Champagne: Pinot Noir now has more registered clones than any other variety in the world and Chardonnay is in third spot.

A systematic approach that still characterises the CIVC’s research involved trails of three hundred plants from each clone, with vinification and regular tasting from vin clair stage through yearly monitoring of the wine as it aged on the lees.

There are over twenty Pinot Noir clones now in commercial use in Champagne, most of which are grafted, as is overwhelming the norm in the region onto rootstock 41B.  This choice of rootstock was criticised a little in the past because it encouraged late ripening; but with the effects of climate change, this is now clearly a quality much in its favour.

The next stage of experimental planting was to gather together as many varieties and sub-varieties that exist in the region as a reference collection to help preserve bio-diversity.

Clonal trials on disease resistance were then extended to an organically-managed plot.

Laurent has also trialled biodynamic-style tisanes, but argues that although they may have some effect, it is generally so slight to provide empirically reliable results. He is, however, convinced that those organic growers who are best equipped to deal with a year with affected, like this, with mildew and oidium are simply those who best know their land.

More signficantly, perhaps, trials on fungal diseases suggest that many common diseases are endemic but that most plants seem to have either immunity or an ability to co-exist with them. The real issue for viticulture, Laurent argues, is to try to understand what triggers an outbreak of disease such that one plant may succumb, while its neighbour remains healthy. It is, therefore, not so much a question of combating the disease itself, but in learning how a vine may live with the disease and what may ‘rupture the physiological balance of the plant’.

When I asked a question about use of Copper Laurent used the analogy of common salt to argue that no substance per se is a problem, it is only, he said, the level of the dose which is an issue. Monitoring of soil health is done with the assistance of microbiologists and entomologists specialising in the earth worm.

The CIVC is researching the effect of grassing between the rows. Weeds are not ‘mauvaises herbes’, Laurent insists. The results of trials at Plumecoq are fascinating. The effect of competition reduces yields (a mixed blessing in Champagne) – in a dry year by 10 to 15% and in a dry year by significantly more. The ‘grass’ consumes oxygen and nitrogen and the vine is less vigorous – and effect, which even in wet years serves to reduce the incidence of rot and mildew.

No representative of any Champagne house has yet responded more than dismissively when I have asked if climate change might necessitate a change to canopy management in the region, so I was fascinated to see that the CIVC have been granted permission to experiment with wider rows and higher canopies. A small change has a marked effect. As long as the overall size of canopy per hectare is maintained to allow the same capacity for photosynthesis, the sugar levels remain the same, but the acidity increases and the pH drops slightly. Why? It is as yet uncertain, but maybe because with better air circulation and therefore less trapped heat, the level of malic acid, which degrades with heat, is better maintained.

Many other experiments take place at Plumecoq including highly detailed work on the extent of biodiversity and precision viticulture, but one of the more surprising initiatives is a move, in association with the INRA, to develop new disease-resistant hybrid strains, which by back-crossing remain as close to the classic Champagne varieties as possible. The big question is how acceptable these might be to producers and consumers, and whether public attitudes to GM will soften enough to allow GM experiments to come up with alternative solutions to hybridisation that might have an even more significant effect in producing vines able to withstand the effects of climate change.

In addition to what takes place at Plumecoq and the other experimental vineyards owned by CIVC – one in the Aube at Essoyes and another being developed near Epernay on a site surrounded by woodland where there will be less chance of disease contamination from surrounding vineyards, the real work of research Laurent emphasises, is carried out through and by networks of growers working together and sharing results. This is the means by which research most effectively gets into the commercial bloodstream.

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