Reims, France: Traditionalists were outraged when wine farmers in the Champagne region, home of the world’s most premium bubbly, repealed a century-old rule controlling the space between grapes on Thursday.
The maximum allowable distance between grape rows has been 1.5 meters (five feet) for the past 100 years, which experts have always thought to be the optimal combination of yield and quality.
They claimed that increasing vine spacing would eliminate the need for the vines to compete with neighboring plants for water and nutrients, allowing them to produce smaller, higher-quality crop loads with precisely the correct amount of acidity.
However, because machines for trimming, fertilizing, and harvesting can’t easily cross the tight gaps between rows and between each vine, mechanization is problematic.
According to 15-year research undertaken by the SVG growers’ association, scientists, and champagne houses, greater expanses would allow for a 20% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions due to wine growing equipment that would operate better and more efficiently than the current straddle tractors.
“The aim is to accompany the necessary agroecological transition by adapting Champagne vines to climate change, while at the same time preserving the quality and unique quality of Champagne vines, and the economic sustainability of wine growers,” said SVG’s president, Maxime Toubart.
Working the soil and insect management would also become easier, according to the study.
While there would be less room for vines, the enhanced productivity of each plant would compensate for the deficiency.
“Vines would become more resistant to drought and need fewer additives,” said Vincent Legras, a winegrower who has experimented with wider spaces between vines since 2007 and is in favor of the change.
The discussion is over for me, he said.
Local opponents, on the other hand, predict growing inequities among winegrowers, as well as a threat to local customs, grape quality, and jobs.
“Under the cover of environmental concerns they are implementing a business project of cost-cutting,” said Patrick Leroy, boss of the far-left CGT-Champagne trade union. “These strategies will destroy jobs.”
According to him, up to a quarter of the 10,000 jobs in the sector could be lost, and he fears a “planned extinction” of the Champagne region’s distinctive production processes.
However, Toubart of SVG indicated that each wine farmer would be free to choose whether or not to exploit the additional leeway, and that change would be gradual in either case. It will be a long transition,” he said, spanning one, two, or three generations.
The spacing guideline is one of several stringent requirements that producers must adhere to in order to remain members of the restricted club permitted to use the Champagne label.
They must use precise processes for pressing the fruit and fermenting it, in addition to only using grapes from the region.
Champagne, the most celebrated sparkling wine in the world, accounts for only 9% of global sparkling wine consumption but 33% of its value.
Each year, more than half of the 244 million bottles supplied are sold to customers outside of France.