The life cycle of the vine in Champagne
Each stage in the vine’s cycle offers us a different spectacle, one to be admired and enjoyed. Below we describe each of them in turn.
The vine’s year consists of two cycles:
A vegetative cycle, which runs from March to November.
A winter cycle, when the vine is at rest, from November to March.
The ‘Pleurs’ (tears or weeping)
The month is March and winter is turning into spring. The vine wakes up at the end of its winter cycle thanks to the warming of the soil and the temperatures. The sap rises up through the vine and drips from the tips of the shoots pruned earlier in the year. These droplets, referred to as "tears", show that the root system has become active again.
Depending on the terroir and how the vine is managed, each vine can lose between 0.5L and 5L of sap.
The ‘Débourrement’ (budburst)
At the end of March or in early April, buds (or eyes) develop along the vine shoots. At their tip, there is a woolly-looking cotton that protects the future clusters and leaves. These are the buds that will swell and eventually split open: this is known as budburst. Each bud gives birth to a new shoot. These new shoots are very vulnerable to spring frosts.
Late pruning can be carried out to delay the budburst and thereby avoid the worst of the frosts.
The ‘Feuillaison’ (coming into leafing)
We are now at the end of April, the buds are gradually transforming and leaves are beginning to form. The first leaf unfolds, spreads out and is joined by others. Thanks to these leaves, the vine will be able to perform its photosynthesis, an essential stage in the development of the vine and the production of its sugar, an ingredient necessary for its growth.
‘Feuillaision’ is a lovely period which returns the vines, and the vineyards in general, to their full glory.
The month of April is also when the shoots start growing.
The ‘Floraison’ (flowering)
After the ‘feuillaison’ and the emergence of the clusters, comes the ‘floraison’ or flowering. At the first signs of summer, in May through to June, the clusters of flowers start to grow and burst into bloom in the warming rays of the sun. Only lasting an average of 10 days, this stage is short but offers us a fabulous spectacle: each cluster comprises between 100 and 200 tiny white flowers.
Flowering means fertilisation: the flowers release their pollen and fertilise each other. At this stage, we can estimate the size of the future harvest.
The date of the harvest can also be calculated at this stage: this is known as the ‘100-day rule’. 100 days usually elapse between the mid-flowering date and the date when the grapes are ready to be harvested.
The ‘Nouaison’ (fruit set)
In June, the flower wilts and drops: fertilisation has taken place. The fertilised ovule gives birth to a fruit, the grape berry. During this phase, the grape is small and firm.
This stage of the vine cycle is called the 'nouaison' (fruit set) because when the grape has completely emerged, it is said to be 'noué’ (tied).
The ‘Véraison’ (the start of ripening)
The grapes have become bigger and the growth phase is slowing down. The grape berries acquire their final colour. This is known as the ‘véraison’. The Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes darken and the Chardonnay grapes become translucent.
The pulp of the grape gradually becomes richer in sugar but still remains very acidic.
The grapes don't all turn colour at the same rate and the bunches can look pretty amazing at this stage which can last between 8 and 15 days.
The ‘Maturation’ (ripening)
After the véraison, comes the maturation or ripening. This second growth stage, from August to September, allows the grapes to grow, plump out and accumulate all the elements necessary to reach perfect maturity (minerals, amino acids, phenolic compounds, and of course sugars). The increase in sugars goes hand in hand with a decrease in acids. When all these elements have been acquired, maturity has been reached and the harvest can then begin. The big question is: is it going to be declared a vintage year or not?
It has been observed that a cooler summer will produce more acidic grapes.
After the harvest, the vines can relax for a bit. From November onwards, the plots are arrayed in lovely warm colours: the leaves take on yellow, golden and red tones. These leaves gradually dry out and drop off. This is the start of the winter cycle, the sap returns to the trunk and the roots, and the vine hibernates until March.
The ‘Taille’ (pruning)
As mentioned in the ‘pleurs’ section, the vines are pruned from December to February before they awaken from their winter slumber. This important operation controls the production of the grapes in terms of their quantity and quality. The removal of shoots concentrates the sap in fewer bunches and grapes, making them tastier.
So, as you have seen, each step is important to obtaining the finest possible grapes each year. Then, after all the juices have been collected, comes the production of the champagne, which you can read about here.