Wettest weeks in Champagne

The last two months have been the wettest since Metéo France began to record the country's rainfall in 1959.

While it may not have held the record of the wettest area in France, there has been an abundance of rain in Champagne and both the Aube and Marne departments remain on orange alert, and people are advised to be very attentive and stay away from the water's edge.

The reason for the alert is the flooded state of the Seine (in the Aube) and the Marne rivers. Both rivers burst their banks just before Christmas, and water levels have remained high through January. This has resulted in large-scale flooding in the Bar-sur-Seine and the Vallée de la Marne areas. Winemakers with buildings close to either river have found themselves up till their ankles (or knees) in cold river water.

Champagne Devaux, was forced to close its visitor center (Le Manoir Champagne Devaux) in Bar-sur-Seine. The Manoir, located in a 2-hectare park right next to the Seine, flooded twice in January, with water levels above one meter in parts of the building. Aurélie Neveux, the visitor center manager,confirmed the the Manoir needs extensive renovations, and that the center will remain closed for an undefined period. In the meantime, Champagne Devaux will open a temporary visitor center on its operational site, located a little higher in the village.

Meanwhile in Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, close to the Marne, Charles Philipponnat, general manager of Champagne Philipponnat told Wine-Searcher the Champagne House had around 10 cm of water in its cellars. "We have been pumping the cellar around the clock for the last few weeks to prevent it from rising further. This means the Champagne bottles have not been affected." Nevertheless, the water regularly causes electrical short circuits and has made it difficult to use the wine elevators, even permanently damaging one.

Still, Philipponnat recalls that flooding of the Marne is not really that rare, even if you have to go back to 2001 for a similar inundation. Micheline Tarlant, fromChampagne Tarlant adds to this that severe flooding of the Marne happened quite regularly before the Lac du Der-Chantecoq was added to its catchment basin in 1974. The Seine in the Aube has a similar river drainage lake, the Lac d'Orient, put into service in 1966. These lakes generally prevent the rivers from overflowing, however since both lakes are currently filled to the brim, it is likely the region will remain flooded for a while, especially since the lakes are set to release some of the excess water.

Even if many Champagne producers located close to the river have suffered damages from the floods, the Avenue de Champagne in Epernay, which houses millions of champagne bottles in a myriad of cellars, remains unscathed. Christophe Bonnefond, wine operations manager at MCHS, said that the cellars at Champagne Moet and Chandon and Champagne Mercier located at opposite ends of the Avenue de Champagne, remain dry.

The Champagne vineyards have also escaped flood damage. According to the appellation criteria, vineyards are planted on a slope to capture most of the sunlight. With the average gradient being 12 percent, it's highly unlikely that the river water would ever raise high enough to create havoc in the vineyard. Nevertheless, the incessant rain has saturated the soils, and the water table has risen to just under 17 meters in certain areas. If the water tables continue to rise, it is likely that cellar flooding becomes more widespread before the end of the winter.

The soggy and often slippery soil has also slowed down the pruning and tying tasks, especially on steep slopes. Yet the extreme mild winter weather has already caused some vines to weep, indicating the plant is readying itself for budburst. This combination has made many winegrowers extremely apprehensive and irritable, fearing once again severe frost damage later in the season. Fingers crossed this will not happen.

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