Haute densité—basse densité

vignerons like Hubert Lamy are planting higher and higher density vines while Champagne appears to be going the reverse direction. I found the article interesting.

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The article has really taken the bait…

Among the high quality producers of Champagne, this move is regarded with considerable skepticism/hostility, as encouraging a more productivist approach to viticulture and opening the way to machine harvesting in the future.

Since the proponents of low density are not generally distinguished by their sustainable farming practices, the sustainability argument strikes me as something of a canard.

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These are not mutually exclusive points right? A person who cares about environmental inputs can honestly say that lower herbicide and other pesticide use occurs with wider spacing. Wine quality? Oh well we didn’t say anything about that!

The lower chemical input part should be true in most climate conditions… a tractor gets rid of weeds and more space almost always means less fungus. I sincerely doubt any of the champagnes that this group drinks will be eager to rip out vines and start spacing wider!

The best producers in Champagne seem to be doing fine farming without herbicides or pesticides at conventional densities.

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This is not really true. There are quite a number of high end producers who are for this and have participated in the trials. Those against are highly vocal giving the impression, every one is against this move.

High density planting means the plants deliver grapes at an earlier age, the yields are lower per plant but if one compares at say 10, 15 or 20 years , things even out in terms of yields with grapes grown futher apart.

The problem with high density, is the plants struggle for light and thus have bigger leaves. Also higher density increases the ph levels. The plant does not release carbon in the same way as vines that grow futher apart and also potassium coming from the soil is recycled by the leaves, increasing the dosage in the grapes, not necessarily a good thing.

Emanuel Brochet, told us this year, that he thinks perhaps in ten years , he will let his vines grow wild, it might be the only way to make wine in the face of man made climate change.

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A pleasure to exchange with you again, Ulrich! But I think you are conflating two aspects of the “vignes semi-larges” debate. What was raised here was planting density, but the other dimension is the possibility to have higher canopies. The traditional Champagne approach is high density and canopies hedged low (1m10 at most); and hedging low can indeed result in a denser canopy, as cutting the vines’ apex promotes growth of laterals, as well as resulting in higher pH musts for a variety of reasons. Higher canopies with very late hedging, or no hedging at all, are one solution, as you do not get the lateral growth so the canopy isn’t so thick, and the clusters are smaller. At high densities, this also has the advantage of shading the fruiting zone, protecting from sun burn. This is the approach increasingly being followed by many top growers in Burgundy, as well as several in Champagne. I suspect, based on my exchanges with him, that when he talks of letting his vines grow wild, Brochet is talking of not hedging his canopies, i.e. non rognage. After all, “wild” has no bearing on planting density per se.

I’m also surprised to hear some of your contentions about higher density resulting in “bigger leaves”, higher pHs, etc - as I say, I think you’re conflating the issues of low hedging and high density planting, but if you’re not, I certainly never saw any evidence for that in Burgundy. Lamy’s HD wines have higher TA/lower pH than his regular cuvées from the same parcels… And the leaves are very clearly the same size. But of course, you have to be so crazy to plant at densities >12k/hectare that this is unlikely to be the subject of a proper scientific study any time soon. To me, the real question about high density plantings is the worry about drought conditions, and it is certainly a very big worry. Yet, as many production oriented producers lobby for permission to plant at lower densities, the best wines of Burgundy and Champagne continue to be produced from very high density plantings…

It would be nice to see a situation where planting density and canopy management could be adjusted site by site, yet for the time being material constraints (limitations of tractors and equipment) impose a “one size fits all” approach on most producers.

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Saw a while back on IG that Keller is planting Pinot at around 20k per hectare, looked incredibly dense when they planted the vines.

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When this whole thing kicked off, I was naturally inclined to side with those who were against the wider spacing. The problem, many of the producers, who I work with were not against or in the middle and wanted to see how things evolved so I had to remain neutral.

The biggest suspicion of the new measure would be the introduction of machine harvesting, something I doubt, I will see in my lifetime. A number of producers, who took part in the trials have had mixed results. Pierre Legras, who we work closely with was quite satisfied, his winery put a lot of emphasis on reducing the carbon footprint and this was achieved, yields were stable.

If we look at 2022 with the limit being set at 12 k/ha and 14 K/ha for reserve wines, a ludicrous decision which can only be achieved with herbicides and higher density planting. Although the best producers may themselve not .use herbicides, in many cases they turn a blind eye and buy from producers, who have no problem using them.

What is the real advantage of high density, one is able to harvest grapes from an early age. If one however compares high density and vines with a wider distance , iin twenty years the yields are the same, just the ph values are different as the stress on high density is different. Hubert Lamy is always cited as an example for high density, his wines have a unique style, which one must like.

My feeling is Brochet is moving more towards making natural wines, minimal intervention and allowing the vine to decide itself, how much grapes etc it produces. He told us, in ten years time, if the climate continues to change as it is doing, the region will be very different. I do not think high density will be sustainable.

Water retention will be the biggest challenge.

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I agree it is a real question for the future…

Similar discussions are being had in the Côte d’Or, where in Meursault for example some growers are lobbying for the right to plant at lower density. However, as I understand it the intention is to plant at lower densities in the regional-level vineyards on the plain, where hydric stress is the least significant, rather on the steep, rocky hillsides, where it might make some sense.

I am inclined to think that vines at lower densities, when farmed the right way, can actually deliver wines of similar concentration to moderately higher density plantings (i.e. circa 10k per hectare) - but you have to use permaculture to supply the necessary competition, rather than the intra-vine competition you get in high density plantings. And sadly, low density isn’t often going together with good rootstocks, vine genetics and farming. One Burgundy cuvée that’s interesting to taste in this context is the Volnay Santenots from Roblet-Monnot, which derives from a parcel that was planted at lower density with an experimental lyre system by its previous owner (because the vines are trained high, people sometimes assume it’s a Leroy parcel, amusingly). Pascal’s farming is very forward-thinking, and the results are very good.

But the danger is always that a valid problematic (i.e. what is the future of high density plantings + drought vintages) will be exploited by those who simply want to produce more grapes, more easily, and let the prestige of the appellations make the wine easy to sell irrespective of its quality.

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I am never really sure, if comparing Burgundy and Champagne are helpful, I do it it myself a lot. There are highly successful producers making champagne in what I would call a Burgundian way but there is a lot of misunderstandings. Also there a lot of different ways of making good champagne.

With Barrique low yields are essential and high density planting obviously is of an advantage, especially when working with young vines. However I remember when you gave high points to, I think it was Ulysse Collin, that in following years, we tasted numerous champagnes from younger producers that were just destroyed by the toast elements of the oak. My perception at the time was they did not understand the absolute need for low yields/concentration when working with toast aromas. The recent releases of Elise Bougy are a good example for this.

Balance I think is the most important aspect, ensuring the equilibrium between what the soil can give and what the grape can produce. Although I should be on the wine growers side, I think Roederer are doing fantastic work and they have come to the conclusion that 10000 vines per hectare deliver optimal results. Also Jacquesson, they also show what is possible with low yields.

The subject is probably more complex than just machine harvesting, the fear of losing jobs to new technology probably plays a bigger role than any other factor.

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The inherent concentration of the wine is certainly one thing, but the choice of oak itself is also important. The trend amongst thoughtful producers in Burgundy is towards lower and lower toasts, which makes for less and less empyreumatic aromas and also less supplemental sweetness. Some coopers were very forward thinking in this regard, notably Tonnellerie Mercurey, and others are catching up fast. There is increasing interest in convection toasts whereby no flame ever touches the wood. Also toasting uncovered so there is less build up of char aromas and the temperature of the toasting is lower (the main constraint is that the stave with the bung hole tends to crack if you don’t hit an adequate temperature). Matching the forest/grain, seasoning and toast to the wine itself is the next step. This is quite haute couture stuff, requiring a lot of time, tasting and discussion to get right, and the sort of perfectly integrated complementary oak profile that some of Burgundy’s best domaines manage today is really very hard to achieve. Visiting in Champagne, I do not get the impression that many producers have fully explored those possibilities—or that they necessarily get the best stuff from the coopers, as convincing a cooper to sell you the best barrels is obviously easier if you are in Vosne or Meursault than if you are in Champagne.

Going from fermenting in tank to fermenting in barrel is also a difficult transition, because if you are fermenting in barrels you can and indeed need in my view to take a lot more solids, especially if you are using some new oak. The oak integration is immeasurably superior if you take a lot of solids. If you simply take a very clean must of that sort that one would ferment in tank and ferment it in barrel, the wood will stand out hugely. So if you change vessels you also need to rethink pressing and settling at the same time.

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You make a lot of outstanding points. My interest levitates more towards the Champagne region than Burgundy. And the use of wood in champagne is not for everyone, you have extremes like Guiborat or Ledru, who reject wood totally and at the other end of the spectrum, producers where oak/toast aromas define the champagne.

Savart, I must admit has influenced me most. His weathering of the staves until all toast aromas dissippate and the use of the barrel as solely an oxidative vehicle is impressive. Leclapart is also doing exceptional work. They are not the only producers to do this, probably Agrapart and egly being the most effective. Savart is starting to use oak from the north of the Champagne region, so it will be interesting to see how that goes, especially as he says this completes the circle in the expression of terroir.

My feeling especially with the 2019 vintage is that younger producers with international experience are making really good oxidative champagnes and are gaining a better understanding in how to incorporate wood without allowing the toast to influence the aromatics. Interesting times for the region.

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I’m not a massive fan of either Champagne or Burgundy, but this erudite discussion makes me wish I was! Thanks Donald and William.

How lucky we are that TWA no longer has its own BB!

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Not sure I agree with either but love the discussion.