France is not renowned for the pace at which things change – the basis of law is still based from Napoleonic times! But in the Champagne region an established rule is about to be altered.
Champagne vines have traditionally been planted at 1,5 metres distance to each other for over 100 years. It was believed that this was the optimal separation in order for the vine to flourish, have sufficient water and produce a decent yield of grapes. Vines like to be competitive and to struggle, the soil in Champagne is notoriously poor and chalky, and with the spacing of only 1,5 metres the fight for water was such that the vine would not over-produce fruit.
When the original spacing rule was implemented the harvest was carried out by hand and the tight space was ideal for a person to be able to reach vines all round. But even France has to move with the times and after an evaluation and a vote by the Syndicat General des Vignerons de la Champagne (SGV) the space between vines will be changed.
There are a couple of reasons behind allowing vines to be planted upto 2,20 metres apart. The primary being our old friend – climate change. The president of SGV, Maxime Toubart was quoted as saying, “The aim is to accompany the necessary agro-ecological transition by adapting Champagne vines to climate change, while at the same time preserving the quality and unique quality of Champagne vines……” Which is a fancy way of saying that the increased space will allow more modern and efficient machinery access to the vineyard.
It is estimated that by 2025 the Champagne industry will cut carbon emissions by 25% and the use of herbicides will be reduced by 50%. One other factor that has determined this outcome is that the climate has already changed and more drought is predicted for the region in the future. Although vines are happy to compete for water, the extra space between them should help them become drought resistant and produce the same quality yields that we have come to expect.
Not everybody is happy with the change. The militant left-wing union, CGT, is extremely disgruntled and have been heard to say that this is no more than a cost saving exercise under the pretence of environmental friendliness! The union estimates that up to one quarter of the 10,000 employees in the Champagne industry could lose their job. There is also opposition from locals for no other reason than it is a change to tradition.
To put this into perspective. The study that was carried out to determine whether an extra 70 cm of space would be beneficial in the future took fifteen years. The rule change still needs further approval from a governing body and Monsieur Toubart himself said, “It will be a long transition, over one, two or even three generations”