Friday, February 29, 2008

Training Vines in Champagne: Pinot Noir

Champagne, as you know, is largely made from three different grape varieties. Each variety tends to prefer a slightly different terroir, and each gets trained in a different way to adapt to the needs of the variety and to best take advantage of the local environment. Right now, in the wintertime when the vines are pruned back and there isn’t any foliage, it’s easy to see the structures of the different training systems. This week I asked Nicolas Chiquet of Champagne Gaston Chiquet to take me out into the vines. (He’s the guy in the photo, as you might have guessed.)

The photo below shows a pinot noir vine in the vineyard of Vauzelle in Aÿ, which is a particularly excellent plot of land. Pinot noir likes south-facing slopes with plenty of sun, and thrives in dry, chalky soils (it hates humid, clay-rich soils, such as those in the western Vallée de la Marne). Aÿ fits both of these conditions perfectly, which is why it’s potentially the greatest pinot village in all of Champagne.

Pinot noir in Champagne is always trained in the cordon du Royat, involving a long, horizontal charpente, or branch, at a maximum height of 60 centimeters above the ground, with several spurs that produces fruit-bearing canes. The canes, or coursons, must be spaced at least 15 centimeters apart to provide sufficient aeration, and each is allowed to have two buds, while on the prolongement (the short cane that you can see on the very end of the cordon—I don’t know what we call this in English, but maybe you do) there are four buds allowed. The main branch can be renewed by a second one that you can see clearly in this example—as it grows it will be trained along the same wire as the old wood, and can eventually replace it. Comparatively speaking, pinot noir is of relatively low vigor, but the yields must be carefully managed in order to produce high quality wine, and the cordon du Royat helps maximize ripeness while keeping yields under control.

Chardonnay, on the other hand, gets treated in a completely different manner—I’ll tell you about it tomorrow.