Champagne and Climate Change – Looking to the past to survive the future

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Whether under threat from a sap-sucking mite or the might of an invading army, Champagne not only prevailed but flourished. Climate is their latest challenge.

Champagne’s classic style depends on crisp acidity and fruity, but salty, mineral flavours which are the result of not only the characteristic chalky soil but also a very cool climate.

Over the past 30 years the average temperature in the region has risen 1.1oC and the date for starting the harvest has been steadily brought forward from the end of September to the beginning. So far, this hasn’t been all bad news, but has created a seesaw effect.

For example, with warmer weather, the buds appear earlier, but this means the spring frosts are more destructive. Likewise the early arrival of warm weather pushes forward maturity but also encourages new pests and diseases. Last year’s heatwaves in June and July scalded grapes, ruining more than 10% of the potential harvest. On the other hand, the exceptional ripening conditions produced musts with a good balance of acidity and sugar which winemakers believe bodes well for future cuvées. The downside was that maturity during hot days and nights generally results in  lower acidity in the grapes – and acidity is key to champagne’s unique flavours.

pinot noir grape on vine

Pinot Noir. Credit www.champagne-laherte.com

Life under enemy occupation

Luckily resilience and innovation have always been the hallmarks of the Champenois. During the second World War Champagne was occupied by the Germans for four years and many of its men ended up in prison camps or taken into Germany as forced labour. Life was hard in the vineyards. There was not only the scarcity of labour, but also chronic shortages of food for both the human and equine vineyard workers.

The invaders liked to freely help themselves to champagne, but were somewhat thwarted by the mysteriously reduced cuvées (after the Champenois managed to hide bottles in cellar wall cavities and wells). As the Resistance became more active in Champagne, the Germans hardened their attitude and the heads of champagne houses such as Moet & Chandon and Veuve Cliquot Ponsardin; the director of the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne; and president of the Syndicat Général des Vignerons were all sent to camps such as Auschwitz, Neuengamme, Ziegenhain  and Buchenwald. The House of Piper-Heidsieck also suffered after English army parachutes were discovered in their cellars.

boxes of champagne in cave

Moët & Chandon tucked away as much stock as they dared, photo credit Getty Images

Despite the hardships and trauma, the Champenois managed to bring in their harvests and produced excellent vintages during the war years. After all, this wasn’t the first time they had survived the onslaught of war.

From 1914-18 World War I had turned Champagne into a battlefield.  During the three and a half years of trench warfare the German lines had camped only a mile north-east of Reims and the city was subjected to 1051 days of bombing. By the end of the war, the city was almost completely destroyed, as were 40% of the vineyards, yet the unbroken citizens rebuilt their homes and restored their vines.

chardonnay grape on vine

Chardonnay, credit www.champagne-laherte.com

A smaller but more devastating enemy strikes the vineyards

Other battles had taken place in the region since the Romans planted the first vines more than 2000 years ago but it was perhaps the smallest invader which not only tested the spirit of champagne makers, but also brought about changes that are now perhaps more pertinent than ever.

The globalisation of trade in the 19th century had exposed French grape varieties to new pests, including phylloxera, which almost rang the death knell for the European wine landscape.

Phylloxera aphid

Phylloxera close up, credit: Agriculture Victoria

Phylloxera, a ravenous aphid-like mite that feeds on vine roots and leaves, hitched a ride to Europe on North American vine cuttings and by the end of the 19th Century had destroyed more than 6 million acres of vines in France alone.

woman in biosuit inspects vine roots

Vinehealth’s immersive phylloxera workshop for Australian winegrowers. For. more, visit https://vinehealth.com.au/

As a sidenote, phylloxera also appeared in Australia, with an infestation at Geelong in 1877. It spread north reaching New South Wales in 1884 and Queensland in 1910, destroying vineyards and devastating the industry.  South Australia, having banned movement of vine material in 1874, remained free of the pest, as did Western Australia and Tasmania. Phylloxera continues to be a serious problem inAustralia, particularly in the Yarra Valley, Victoria.

By the end of the 19th century, phylloxera had wiped out all of Champagne’s extensive plantings. Faced with imminent catastrophe, growers and Champagne Houses joined forces and in 1898 formed the Association Viticole Champenoise – the Wine-growing Association of Champagne to come up with a plan of attack.

The solution was to graft European vines onto American rootstock to create a new vine that preserved the European characteristics on a phylloxera-resistant rootstock. The reasoning for this was that American vines could resist phylloxera because the tissue directly underneath their bark was vigorous and could quickly repair the insect damage with a protective corky material.

Needless to say this met with some resistance as it seemed to be inviting the enemy into the citadel, but it worked. Growers also changed the way they grew these new vines. Instead of the old system where vines grew in clumps, the new grafted vines were replanted on wires in straight lines, leaving a clear alleyway between rows allowing horses and later mechanised vehicles to pass through.

One reason these changes are so relevant today is that they created a strong sense of shared commitment to problem solving through innovation among the growers and producers.

Meunier grapes on vine

Meunier, credit www.champagne-laherte.com

Looking to the past to survive the future  

Champagne, as a collective of 16,000 growers and 320 houses, has been pro-actively tackling climate change since 2003. It was the first wine-growing region in the world to carry out a carbon footprint assessment and identify the main sources of emissions. It aims to cut emissions by 75% by 2050 and already the C02 emissions generated with each bottle of champagne have been cut by 20 per cent. The Comité Champagne (CIVC) reports that the glassblowers rose to the challenge of striking a balance between reducing bottle weight as much as possible and preserving the bottle’s mechanical characteristics. Using lighter-weight champagne bottles is the equivalent in emissions of removing 8,000 cars from the road each year.

Improved soil and vine management techniques, waste recycling and biomass conversion not only contribute to a smaller environmental footprint, but also provide some protection against climate change as the organic practices work with, rather than against, the land.

For the last century, more than half the authorised champagne grape varieties have fallen out of use because they were not replanted post-phylloxera, being considered difficult to grow. This led to the current dominance of the “big three” – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier which between them make up 99.7% of the grapes grown for champagne.

But as they say, every grape has its day. Climate change has made winemakers rethink the value of the forgotten heritage grapes: Arbanne, Petit Meslier, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris (Fromenteau) – as they endeavour to maintain the all-important acidity in their champagne.

Arbanne grapes on vine

Arbanne, credit www.champagne-laherte.com

The CIVC is collaborating with the French National Institute for Agricultural Research to create new hybrid grape varieties that will ripen more slowly and be more resistant to pests and disease as the region experiences warmer and wetter conditions.

In this decades long project, researchers have been crossing the “big three” with the super-géniteur varieties: Arbane, Petit Meslier and Gouais.

“Gouais?” You say. While it is not one of the seven authorised grape varieties and was sneered at historically as the grape of the peasants, Gouais plays an important role in the champagne story. In fact, this so-called “Casanova of Grapes” is thought to be the parent of around 80 European grape varieties and continues to contribute valuable genetic material to breeding programs. Its high acidity and low sugar levels are particularly pertinent in the current climate, hence its role in the CIVC project.

family tree of grape varieties

Family tree of the grapes of Champagne from www.champagne.com

The Champenois are also exploring a range of other options to meet the challenge of maintaining the unique character of their product in rapidly changing circumstances.

Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon, the chef de cave at Louis Roederer, has been systematically experimenting with biodynamic viticulture, gentler forms of pruning and DNA analysis of yeast for the last 20 years in the pursuit of maintaining Champagne’s reputation.

One of Lecaillon’s solutions to climate change is to give more natural resilience to the vineyard ecosystems.  He believes that working with the environment through biodynamics results in more vigorous and hardy vines. “They have more energy,” he says. “With deeper roots, they’re better able to handle heat and drought, and the wines have more freshness.”

Fromenteau - Pinot Gris grapes on vine

Fromenteau (Pinot Gris), credit www.champagne-laherte.com

While the CIVC project works to create climate-change resistant cultivars, several champagne makers are already producing cuvées using the old varieties of the region. For example, Aurélien Gerbais, of Pierre Gerbais, offers L’Originale, a pure Pinot Blanc champagne using grapes from vines at Les Proies planted in 1904.

An interesting feature of some of the cuvées using ancient grape varieties is that they are “complantée” or co-planted. It is perhaps the extreme expression of terroir and the winemakers believe that a blend of grapes from a vineyard where the varieties are co-planted, pressed and vinified together have an extra dimension to them.

Pascal Agrapart, of Agrapart, has produced the NV Extra Brut Grand Cru Complantée from a blend of the “big three” co-planted with the ancient varieties of Arbane, Pinot Blanc and Petit Meslier.

Laherte Frères takes it a step further with their Les 7 which is a cuvée that includes all seven authorised champagne grape varieties co-planted in the one plot. Winemaker Aurélien, a 7th generation Laherte, says the plot was planted by his grandfather with one of the aims being to reproduce the style of champagne that was popular in this area 300 years ago. Les 7 is produced using the Spanish solera method of creating the reserve wine, with fractional blending resulting in a finished product that is a mixture of ages, with the average age gradually increasing as the process continues over many years.

Pinot Blanc grapes on vine

Pinot Blanc, credit www.champagne-laherte.com

Les 7 consists of 10% Pinot Gris, 18% Chardonnay, 18% Meunier, 15% Petit Meslier, 8% Arbanne, 14% Pinot Noir and 17% Pinot Blanc. While Pinot Gris is rich and fruity, Petit Meslier and Arbanne both mature more slowly and thus retain high levels of natural acidity.

“We will plant more of the old varieties,” says Aurélien. “They mature more slowly, but we are planting so they can bring freshness to our champagnes 30 or 40 years from now. We are patient and we must adapt. We can’t just follow the same road we did ten years ago.”

Petit Meslier grapes on vine

Petit Meslier, credit www.champagne-laherte.com

Cover image: View across the vineyards of Pierre Gerbais