Sunday, March 2, 2008

Training Vines in Champagne: Meunier

Meunier is a grape that’s often looked down upon, but it’s a lot more important in Champagne than most people give it credit for. The vine is more resistant to extreme cold than chardonnay or pinot noir and it tends to bud late, making it a better choice in colder areas that are more prone to spring frosts. In addition, if its buds are killed by frost it can still produce a limited second round of fruit, which is a neat trick. A moderately vigorous variety (more vigorous than pinot noir), meunier doesn’t like soils that are too poor—it prefers rich, fertile soils, which is why it does well in the clay-dominated environment of the Vallée de la Marne.

Although you’ll find meunier trained in the Chablis system, much of the meunier in Champagne is trained in a system called, appropriately, the Vallée de la Marne, which is a variant of the Guyot. These aren’t Chiquet’s vines in the photo, as all of Chiquet’s meunier is trained on Chablis, not Vallée de la Marne. This is somebody’s meunier vine in the vineyard of Les Pommerats in Damery, on the rive droite, or northern side, of the Vallée de la Marne west of Cumières. Unlike the cordon du Royat or the Chablis, both of which involve short canes on long cordons, the Vallée de la Marne employs long canes on a short trunk of permanent wood. There are two, as you can see in this photo, trained at a maximum height of 50 centimeters above the ground, plus a spur at the base of the trunk which is used to help replenish the canes every year.

There are variations that don’t involve replacing the canes every year, as in this vine elsewhere in the same vineyard. You can see the spur from this angle, although it’s a bit camouflaged by the ground.

Vallée de la Marne and Guyot trainings are prohibited in premier and grand cru vineyards, for any variety. Meunier, in fact, is prohibited from claiming grand cru status on the label, so it’s almost never planted in grand cru villages. The latter sounds like racial discrimination but the former has a reasonable basis: premier and grand cru vineyards generally involve warmer microclimates, which encourage more prolific yields. As the Vallée de la Marne training is intrinsically abundant in yield, it makes sense that it would be detrimental in an already high-yielding terroir.