The Great Champagne Grape Theft

The rolling banks of the Marne were the site of a daring heist in Champagne this week.
© | The rolling banks of the Marne were the site of a daring heist in Champagne this week.
Worried you might have missed some vital wine news this week? Help is at hand.
By Oliver Styles | Posted Sunday, 19-Sep-2021

The biggest news in wine this week was, of course, the appearance in Napa of Just the Tipsy wine in penis-shaped bottles, which is basically the logical (and classier) conclusion of wineries putting their production in ever-heavier bottles.

Wine journalists rarely need an excuse to take this kind of story for a walk so this correspondent will leave it to others to lay it on thick with the double-entendres.

Related stories:
Massive Change Proposed for Champagne
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Sure, Croatia's bid to push for the legal protection of its sweet, white Pro?ek wines (in the face of Italian ojection on behalf of its sparkling white Prosecco producers) took another step forward with lawmakers agreeing to hear their submission, but here are some of the stories you might have missed:

Two acres of Champagne grapes stolen

Believe it or not, it's a classic move. It also takes some "couilles" (balls), as the French would say, to secretly harvest 80 ares (two acres) of Champagne grapes from under the nose of a local viticulturist – and a French army veteran at that.

But that's what happened to 34 year-old Morgan Moutaud this week in Le Mesnil-le Huttier, 15km (nine miles) west of épernay, in Champagne's Vallée de la Marne subregion. Moutaud says the thieves took off with around 70 percent of his production. But he's not alone.

"There are several of us viticulturists in this situation," Moutaud told regional news station Union. "We go around around at night and we try to organize ourselves – as best we can – to avoid this theft."

This is not, however, an isolated incident in Champagne. It appears the region has form with grape theft occurring in years of hardship.

"It's a classic move," Ay-based producer René Goutorbe told French news outlet Capital back in 2019, "especially in low-yielding vintages. You often hear that someone's had 400kg [of grapes] stolen from their vines."

The 2021 growing season has been a tough one in France and Champagne has not been spared. The spring frosts earlier this year and the appearance of mildew in the vineyards over the season could account for a reduction in yield of around 50 percent in some areas, according to recent reports.

Recent rains will have likely had a further detrimental effect (in some areas of southern France and the Languedoc, rains midweek have ruined complete blocks) and it is possible fruit theft will not be confined to Champagne.

World's first agrovoltaic vintage in south of France

The first commercial vintage from a pioneering vineyard using automated solar-panel shading got under way this week in France's southern Pyrénées-Orientales department. Domaine de Nidolères, in Tresserre, in the Rivesaltes and Côtes du Roussillon regions has, since 2009, been a testbed for solar panel vine-shading but it wasn't until 2019 that the domaine installed an automated louvre system programmed to shade the vines when they were deemed to have had enough sunlight.

In a broad collaboration with, among others, Sun'R (specialists in solar energy and its agricultural applications, known as "agrovoltaics"), France's national vineyard researcher INRA, and the Pyrénées Chamber of Agriculture, the project reportedly protects leaves and grapes from sunburn, slows ripening (and over-accumulation of sugars in the grapes), retains acidity, and reduces evapo-transpiration (effectively reducing irrigation requirements).

At night the panels, which each have their own motor, can be set parallel to the ground to reduce heat loss while, day or night, the panels can be set to deflect wind or rain, potentially reducing disease pressure. Although left to run through a pre-programmed algorithm, the panels are controlled from the Sun'R headquarters in Lyon.

The panels themselves sit a few meters above a five-hectare (12-acre) block in the domaine (an additional 2.5 hectares/six acres is an adjacent control site) which, in total, covers around 50 hectares (120 acres). The panels are set high enough to permit machine harvesting, which began mid-week and bringing in Grenache Blanc, Chardonnay and Marselan.

"These days sunburn destroys a whole bunch of trace elements in the grape and reduces the acidity of the fruit," the owner of Domaine, Pierre Escudié, told regional newspaper Actu-Perpignan. "In 20 years, I don't know how many vines there will be left in the department. Yields are increasingly low because of global warming ... If we want to maintain a Mediterranean culture with our grape varieties, we will have to take measures like this."

No news yet on the availability of the forthcoming wine – likely a Vin de Table. Although not the first agrovoltaic system in agriculture – Japan is a world-leader – this is the first known vineyard employing the system.

Wine bar produces video game wine

In another world first, Argentinian creative agency The Juju and Buenos Aires wine bar Anfibio Vineria have collaborated to bring to life the first wine created in a video game. Indeed, the observant may have spotted a bottle of wine in the well-known Call of Duty video game franchise – in particular the multiplayer map Piccadilly in the controversial 2019 Call of Duty: Mondern Warfare game (often abbreviated to "MW", by the way).

The wine in question is the fictional Bodega Dominio Reserva de la Familia Malbec from Mendoza, for sale in the Cork & Glass wine shop. And in a curious case of life imitating (gaming) art, Anfibio Vineria and The Juju teamed up to source and label an imitation bottle, now for sale in the Argentinian capital.

"So that the whole world can can know the taste of a true Argentinian Malbec," says a strapline on the promotional short.

Bordeaux gets dedicated canned wine factory

Not a milk-based laxative, but iconic French canned chocolate beverage brand Cacolac has announced it is dropping €5m (US$5.8m) on expanding its canning factory in Léognan, in Bordeaux's southern outskirts, to accomodate an expansion of its canned wine programme.

The company, which has been making its canned chocolate-and-milk based beverage since the 1950s, began putting wine in cans in 2011. With the growth of their "In Can We Trust" wine division, the company has invested the €5 million ($5.86m) in a new, 2000-square meter building, which will enable expansion into the hard seltzer category and bring production up to 9m seltzer and wine cans annually.

According to packaging industry publication Emballages magazine, the new facility will enable production of a wider range of packaging options and formats, and is due to be online by the end of 2022.

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