The Champagne region of France is a beautiful part of the world, known for their pastoral settings, vineyards and champagne production. Due to international trademarks, this is the only part of the world with the right to apply the name champagne to their wine. The grapevine photograph above was taken on July 6, when the plants were just beginning to flower.
All of these flower clusters will, within weeks, become filled with grapes with a range of 100-200 grapes per cluster. The early summer season requires a lot of preparation work, usually done by local college students and visiting gypsies. The vines need to be properly positioned on the support wires, and the extra leaves that shade the clusters must be cut back to allow sunlight to reach reach the grape clusters to encourage growth and the ripening and sweetening of the grapes. The higher the level of sugar in the grapes the better the fermentation process. The grape’s sugar is converted into alcohol by the naturally-occurring yeast that live in the skin of the grape.
Champagne is essentially white wine that has gone through 2 fermentation processes. The first converts the sugar into alcohol. The second which is induced by the addition of raw sugar being added to the bottle at the end of the first process, causes the formation of gas which becomes the bubbles in the champagne. Unlike wine, most champagne producers ferment their champagne in the bottle. The bottles above are stored in underground man-made caves carved out of chalk, where the temperature stays very cool year-round. The better champagnes require between 5-9 years of aging before they can be released for sale. The cheaper champagnes are released after 2 years of aging.
The end result of all of this work is a wonderful-tasting bubbly wine that has become a necessary part of any major celebration, whether for New Year’s, weddings, marriages or presidential inaugurations. A wonderful product, made in a beautiful part of the world, by brands that date back over 300 years selling bottles that are worth from $40 to over $1000 each. One would think that everything here is perfect …. until you take a closer look at their grape fields.
Rumbling up the road on the way to a grape field came this oddly-shaped tractor, with hoses sprouting from both sides. The guide for this field trip who owned one of the parcels of grapes was asked if the grapes were grown organically. She stated that just a little bit of sulfites are sprayed on to the vines to prevent the growth of fungus. Unfortunately, that is not really the reality. Sulfites are naturally-occurring in the skin of the grape and are also added at the end of wine production as a preservative. However, sulfites are not sprayed over the fields as fungicides.
The fields are being sprayed with strong fungicides and also pesticides not only at the appearance of any problem, but also in advance for the prevention of any attack on these valuable vines. One hectare (2.5 acres) will produce an average of 10,000 bottles of champagne each season. Do the math, a lot of money at risk.
The fumigating tractor that had passed by is now in the fields with its hoses and sprayers extended working up and down the rows of grape vines spraying fungicides. In addition to these tractors, individual workers in white protective suits and gas masks with tanks strapped to their backs walk the up and down the rows of grapes in areas having too high of a gradient for the tractor to navigate, and spray these plants. Pesticides are also applied to these fields as required.
The photo below was taken along the Rhine River in Germany, where grape vineyards line both sides of the river for hundreds of miles. Always a nation focused on production and efficiency, the Germans employ helicopter tankers to fumigate their vineyards with fungicides and pesticides.
After witnessing the application of fungicides in France and Germany, no more champagne was consumed on this trip. Only orange juice with an occasional ice cube… when a European restaurant could be found that would give up one of their valuable cubes. The purpose of this trip was to visit boutique producers of wine and champagne to learn more about bottling and packaging by low-volume family-owned producers and see the machinery used for bottling that might be applied to Seagate’s olive oil production. Unfortunately, observing their vineyard operations, forever changed any urge to open another bottle of champagne.