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White-van-in-the-vineyard300At this time of year a sort of rash appears in the champagne vineyards – a rash of white vans dotted all over the slopes as the vignerons hurry to finish pruning their vines before they really start growing again after their winter rest.

There’s nothing to stop the vignerons from pruning as early as one month after the harvest in September, or October, but with the fermentation and still wine-making to manage, not to mention the build of up sales in the crucial couple of months at the end of each year, pruning is not top of the list of priorities.

It can get seriously cold in Champagne in winter and there is a risk that if you prune a vine at the wrong time – just before a severe frost – the cold will penetrate the wound left on the vine by the pruning and severely damage, if not kill it. Besides, who wants to work outside in temperatures approaching zero or below?

However, come the month of March everything is in full swing. By this time the severe cold is usually past and slightly warmer days remind the vignerons that spring is just around the corner. Before long the sap will be rising in the vines and so it’s important to get the pruning before that happens.

The old champenois saying seems to ring true even in the 21st century:

“ Taille tôt taille tard, rein ne vaut la taille de mars”

“Prune first, prune last – nothing beats pruning in March”.Brouette300

Rolling-seat300Out come the white vans, the little rolling stools on which the workers sit as they work their way down the rows carefully pruning each and every  plant, and the rusty old wheelbarrows in which the off-cuts are burned leaving tell-tale wisps of white smoke drifting across the rather barren looking vineyards (actually, ‘wheelbarrow ‘is rather a flattering term for these ‘brouettes’ which are little more than steel drums cut in two and fixed on a set of wheels).

Pruning is a vital, albeit rather tedious, part of vineyard management. Each and every individual vine has to be pruned by hand and with up to 8,000 plants per hectare it takes around 200 hours to finish one hectare. Moreover it’s a task that demands quite a bit of skill and experience, so much so in fact that you have to be trained, pass an exam and get a certificate before you can be let loose on the vines. That’s because correct pruning plays an important part in controlling the yield of the vines and because, for each different grape varietal, there’s a specific method of pruning.

Most of the off-cuts are burned in the vineyards although a certain proportion is taken away to be ground down into a mulch to be used again on the soil. It’s a scene that has been pretty much unchanged for decades.

off-cut-sarment300However where there is tradition and habit, entrepreneurial people can always find a new opportunity. A few years ago a young man by the name of Alexandre Hénin was struck not only by the tremendous waste of wood, but also by an idea for a new business: one for which the raw material would be free.

He now runs a company that collects the off-cuts from the vineyards, thereby providing the vigneron with a free service and saving the vigneron lots of time – the vigneron even gets a small payment if his vines are organic or bio-dynamic - and then Alexandre sorts and sells the wood for industrial fuel, barbeque fuel, carving into decorations and even, thanks to the polyphenols in the wood, for medicinal use.

It’s a novel initiative and one that underlines the huge steps that have been taken in Champagne over the past few years to radically improve environment management. I wonder if anyone will come up with an alternative for the white vans?