Vineyards in Burgundy. Massimo Santi/Shutterstock

Though grapes are not a large crop for Maine, either in backyards or in orchards, people do grow them here. And increasingly, some of those grapes get made into wine. But at least so far, no matter how hard these growers try, we don’t yet grow grapes as well or make wine as good as the French do. (After all, they’ve been at it for centuries.)

My wife Nancy and I recently spent a week in France. We visited the wine regions of Champagne and Burgundy, which was eye-opening as well as pleasing to our palates.

When we set the dates for our trip, I had thought that our late October through early November dates would be at the tail end of the grape harvest. A few decades ago that would have been the case. But the changing climate has affected grapes – as well as every other thing that grows in the world – and it turned out the harvest in both regions ended in late August. Our tour guides said the earlier harvest had not affected the quality of the wine.

Champagne and Burgundy are about 100 miles apart in the eastern half of France, both about a two-hour drive from Paris. The two areas share similar geology, which helps both produce excellent, if different, wines.

In both regions, the sub-soil is largely limestone, including a lot of chalk. It was created millions of years ago when the regions were covered by the ocean, with the porous materials deposited by marine micro-organisms. The pores in the stone hold onto lots of water, releasing it slowly.

For this reason, the appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC, the governing board for wine regions) for Burgundy bans irrigation, while the AOC for Champagne discourages it except during periods of extreme drought. Though irrigation would produce larger grapes, their juice would be less intense, meaning, in turn, less flavorful wine.


The vines in both Burgundy and Champagne are pruned severely, generally kept to about 3 feet tall. The pruning limits the number of grapes each vine can produce, again intensifying the juice in each grape. Although short, the stems can reach 5 inches in diameter – huge by grape-vine standards. The vines are pruned every year after the harvest but before the buds begin to show up in the spring.

Good Maine gardeners use similar techniques to grow tomatoes, especially the large slicing kind that grow on climbing vines and are such a large part of summer meals. By pruning out all but two or three of the tomato vine stems, the plant will produce fewer – but larger, tastier – tomatoes.

In both Champagne and Burgundy, the roots of the grape vines can go more than 30 yards into the ground, our guides told us, allowing them to pick up minerals and nutrients that improve the flavor of the grape juice, thus the wine.

I was surprised to see that the area between the rows of grapes was not weeded. The grass growing there was a few inches tall. When we got home, though, I read that the area is usually tilled later in the fall.

Before our tours, I had thought that any wines produced in either Champagne or Burgundy could bear those prestigious names on their labels. Not so. While we were enjoying the view of the distant wine slope in Burgundy, we noticed a bright green rectangle of land among the greenish yellow of the fading grape leaves. The guide said that area did not meet AOC qualifications for the grapes. She didn’t know why, but guessed it had to do with the soil. In spots where AOC-approved grapes can’t grow, she told us that sugar beets and canola (rapeseed) are popular crops.

Personally, I’d rather have wine.


OK, now that you know a bit about grape agriculture, let’s talk about wine nomenclature. It’s a little confusing because some wines are named after grapes and some named after regions.

The prime grapes in Champagne are chardonnay, a white grape, and pinot noir and meunier, red grapes. Most Champagne is white. Winemakers remove the skin from red grapes before it can turn the wine red during fermentation. Champagne made from white grapes is known as blanc de blanc, and from red grapes it’s blanc de noir. We brought home two bottles of blanc de noir, and we already have plans for them: We’ll drink one on New Year’s Eve and the other when Nancy’s sister and her husband, both wine enthusiasts, visit from Florida.

Only sparkling wine produced in the Champagne region can be called Champagne. Anything else (Cava or Prosecco, for instance) may sparkle, but it’s not Champagne. So though Burgundy, too, produces some excellent sparkling wine, it is known as sparkling burgundy or, if you prefer the French, Cremant de Bourgogne.

Burgundy is also home to an area called Chablis, where Chardonnay grapes grow. These grapes are mostly used to make the white wine known as Chablis. Elsewhere in Burgundy, pinot noir is grown. Beaujolais, where Gamay grapes grow, is also part of Burgundy, but we didn’t visit there.

Sometimes I’m tempted to give grape growing another attempt –  but not that tempted. In the early 1980s, we produced quite a few Concord grapes in our garden, but the wine we made was awful. Concord grapes don’t make good wine (they are used in some kosher wines, most famously Manischewitz). The grape jelly we made was OK, but not worth the yard space the grapes took up.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at:

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