Champagne is facing one of the biggest changes since the appellation was founded, as the controlling body seeks to lower the number of vines per hectare.
Champagne has long prided itself on its artisanal production process, and one of the biggest reasons for so much manual labor is the high-density planting system, which limits mechanical interventions. The current density is estimated to be around 9000 to 10,000 vines per hectare, though some vineyards have been planted with a density up to 12,000 plants per hectare. The minimum vine density defined by the Cahier des Charges (which specifies the appellation regulations) is just under 6700 vines per hectare.
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However, Champagne as we know it is about to change with the imminent vote (on July 29th) of the administrators of the Syndicat des Vignerons (SGV) on the "Vignes Semi Larges (VSL)" project.
The quest for a lower density in Champagne began 35 years ago, under pressure from Mo?t-Hennesy (now LVMH) and Champagne Roederer. As a result, the first plots of low density vines (2700-3000 vines per hectare) were planted in 1986 and trellised according to the lyre system (defined by the Oxford Companion to Wine as a vine-training system that divides the canopy horizontally into two curtains of upward-pointing shoots). With a distance between the rows of 3-4 meters, it quickly became obvious that this system would not be economical in Champagne and, in 1995, a single curtain alternative (the VSL) was added to the tests.
Here, rows were planted 2.2 meters apart for a total density of 3800 vines per hectare. At the beginning of the year 2000, the lyre vine project, despite its promising qualitative results, was replaced by a more extensive version of the VSL project. In 2006, a 25-year study plan to potentially add the VSL to the Cahier des Charges after a positive report in year 15 was formalized in an agreement signed between the Institut National de l'Origine et de la Qualité (INAO), the SGV and the Comité Champagne (CIVC). Dr Alain Carbonneau, from the Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique (INRA), who had so far overseen the lower density project and who had questioned some of the initial VSL results, was quickly replaced by the CIVC technical team, who became the final overseers of the VSL project. Hereafter, results were no longer publicly available to all winegrowers, only project participants received regular updates.
Despite its long history, and almost certain positive vote at the end of the month, the proposed changes to the Cahier des Charges to include the VSL have been widely criticized. One of the main reasons for the criticism is a lack of transparency on the results. This is why a small group of growers launched a petition to delay the SGV vote. In fact, the vote has already been delayed twice, the first time in 2019, because not all studies were completed, and a second time in March to provide a bit more time to inform winegrowers and gain more support.
If the SGV administrators decide to go ahead with the VSL inclusion, the INAO still has the final approval of Cahier des Charges changes – this, if all goes well, will not likely happen before 2023. However, if an opposition procedure is launched at the INAO, the VSL project approval may take a lot longer, and may even be refused. The push to pass this change so quickly, with so many people opposing it, is therefore even odder.
When asked why he was so keen to pass the VSL approval amid the worst growing season in recent history and to start the Cahier des Charges procedure before harvest, Maxime Toubart, president of the SGV (and co-president of the CIVC) told Wine-Searcher: "We received the final dossier from the CVIC's Technical Team at the beginning of this year and were told that there was no point in postponing this dossier any longer as all technical tests had received enough positive results. This is an opportunity to bring innovation to Champagne, and it will help us to achieve our objectives of zero herbicides, 50 percent less pesticides and 25 percent less carbon emissions by 2025. It is further an excellent tool to adopt to climate change, it will facilitate our work in the vineyards and it has significant economic benefits. There is no obligation to adopt the VSL, it is just an extra tool, another string to our bow, to be more successful in our quest to produce quality wines worthy of the Champagne appellation, which has been recognized by Unesco World Heritage. I therefore see no reason to further deprive the growers and houses from the multiple advantages the VSL can bring them."
Nevertheless, the argument made by Toubart is not as solid as it may seem. To start, the VSL tests conducted by the CIVC and several other growers, continued to use herbicides under the row – even if mechanical weeding under the row should technically be easier than in the current plantation system. When asked in 2019 why the CIVC had opted to use herbicides under the row, Arnaud Descotes, technical director at the CIVC, replied that they did not have the necessary equipment to weed mechanically, an argument which will most certainly be copied, at least initially, by growers and houses opting to convert to the VSL system. Furthermore, since they did not have the correct equipment, the tests indicating better pesticide absorption have been mainly concluded on artificial vines in test conditions in Montpellier. Besides the climate differences between Montpellier and Champagne, different studies have pointed out the irregularities between spray efficiency in artificial and real conditions. And as there will be more mechanical tasks, which will take longer, it’s unlikely that the CO2 output will be reduced much faster than under the current system.
Moreover, there is no concrete proof VSL will help in the adaptation to climate change, while several studies attribute that characteristic (ironically) to the lyre system. If anything, with less leaf cover, there is a higher risk of sun damage, and it is very likely irrigation will become inevitable before the end of the decade, a point affirmed by Toubart.
Proof of this can be found in Pinot Noir, Meunier and Chardonnay planted in Marlborough (New Zealand's South Island being the closest in climate to Champagne according to Dr Richard Smart, an Australian viticulturist specialized in vineyard climates). James Macdonald, senior winemaker at Hunter's Wine confirmed that Hunter's needed to irrigate their sparkling wine vineyards daily all through the growing season. Vineyards are planted at 2.5-meter row intervals, and even with irrigation yields average between 8000 and 10,000 kg/ha – which would not be enough to meet current appellation and Reserve Individuelle requirements.
This brings us to our next point, the long-term economic viability of the VSL. While there is no denying that decreasing the density will reduce the need for manual labor (and thus the manual labor cost), the vineyard installation and new tractor purchases will be expensive, regardless of the CIVC's argument that regular tractors are significantly cheaper than the current straddle tractors. Moreover, yields will drop (the CIVC reports a drop of 18 percent across all varieties in the tests conducted) and according to David Menival, director of the Champagne sector at the Crédit Agricole du Nord Est, the VSL will be an accelerator for the downward grape price trend which started last year. In other words, the total potential income per hectare is likely to plummet.
The catch here is, since Champagne has the same yield for everyone, this yield reduction for the VSL vines will be taken into consideration and it is very likely the yield will drop for everyone, regardless if they have converted to the VSL system or not. It may also pay to point out that not every grape variety will perform equally under the VSL system. Meunier, and to a lesser extent Pinot Noir, will struggle to yield similarly in the lower density system, while the difference will be less pronounced for Chardonnay. This implies, that anyone looking to replant with the VSL system will be drawn naturally to Chardonnay, and it is not unlikely that in a decade or so Chardonnay will become Champagne's dominant grape variety, especially since the trend of exchanging Meunier for Chardonnay has already been in vogue since the 1980s.
The #NoVSL group are vehement about the reduction in quality associated with the VSL system, and they base their argument on the general belief that high density plantings yield better quality fruit, hence better wines. While this has not necessarily been proved by research, one can safely argue that some dilution in flavor and potential alcohol levels will occur when the yield per plant doubles or triples. Champagne has been no stranger to excessive yielding in the past, and longer aging, adding a larger dosage and chaptalization are known to help in fleshing out the wines. Still, it remains difficult to create an exquisite wine using diluted grapes.
Lastly, the Unesco heritage committee may not so readily embrace the landscape changes generated by the VSL plantings. According to Maria Gravari-Barbas, Chair of the UNITWIN/Unesco Culture, Tourism and Development research group, the changes in the landscape are too significant to not be reevaluated by the Unesco World Heritage Center, something the landscape study of the CIVC had missed out.
Seeing the fragile nature of Toubart's argumentation, and the noteworthy risk of income loss, one may rightly ask why the SGV would wish to continue with the VSL inclusion in the Cahier des Charges. Especially since one of the original stakeholders of the project, Champagne Roederer, has gone on record saying they would not plant any VSL. In fact, Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon, technical director at Champagne Roederer, has completely changed tack and is asking for a higher density authorization in the Cahier des Charges.
This leaves us with the other stakeholder, LVMH, who will draw the greatest benefit from the VSL change. The group is the largest vineyard owner, with roughly 1200 hectares, and buys close to 4000 hectares of grapes every year. Their vineyard plots are large enough to efficiently implement the VSL system, which they have tested for the past 15 years on a 3.8- hectare plot. Moreover, over the last decade, they have significantly reduced labor costs in their press centers and wineries, which are almost completely automated, and they are keen to do the same in the vineyard. VSL will help them to achieve this goal. It will also be a potential door-opener for machine harvesting, something LVMH has long been pushing behind closed doors, well at least according to the grapevine rumors. And machine harvesting will be facilitated by the shift to more Chardonnay, as there will be less need to harvest whole clusters, although another change in the Cahier des Charges will be required for that. LVMH would also most benefit from a curtailment of the yield/ha and a reduced grape price. The first would help to bring back the discussions on the Champagne appellation extension, allowing them to rapidly and cost-effectively extend their vineyard holdings, while the latter would widen their profit margins. Both would further strengthen the group’s dominance in Champagne and hence also their influence over the direction the appellation is taking. And this eventually could lead to the extinction of the current high density planting system, similarly to what happened to the vigne en foule (crowed vine) system half a century ago.
To conclude, the VSL system change may seem innocent today, it may even look like a rare opportunity to innovate in a region where innovation is often shunned. But there is no denying that adopting the VSL system will industrialize the champagne vineyards.
As industrialization does not chime well with rare luxury product – the image Champagne so likes to reflect – a lot of effort has gone into pushing this change through as silently and quickly as possible. Winegrowers have received the minimal information and those who wanted to ring the alarm bells have been told to shut up by the CIVC and even received threats from high up in the SGV, in the hope of discouraging them to speak to the American press. The US remains the most profitable champagne export market and a big buyer of prestige cuvées, and it’s important to keep up appearances, at all cost.
But even appearances can only go so far.