Is Climate Change Sounding the Death Toll for Champagne?

If we’re not careful, Champagne may soon be disappearing –for good.
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climate change death toll for champagne

Global warming hasn’t just been acidifying oceans and melting the polar ice caps; it’s also having strange effects on crops around the world. While in certain regions, yields are down as a result of climate change, in Northern Europe, productivity is rising… and this isn’t necessarily a good thing for the world’s favorite sparkling wine.

At AR Lenoble, one of the last independent, wholly family-owned producers in Champagne, the 11-person team is witnessing this change first-hand. International communications director Christian Holthausen explains that when Anne and Antoine Malassagne took over the vineyard from their father Jean-Marie and released their first vintage in 1996, they soon realized that harvests were not going the way they always had. Rising temperatures gave way to earlier bud bursts and earlier harvests: the six earliest in the history of the appellation have taken place this century.

“For a while, the rise in temperatures was a benefit to Champagne,” explains Holthausen. “We used to worry about achieving maturity and proper degrees of alcohol – and that is no longer the case. 

"But the downside of this," he continues, "has been a noticeable decrease in acidity over the last 30 years.”

Preserving Terroir: An Essential Step for Coveted Flavor

Champagne is known for its crisp, light flavor, stemming in large part from the effects of the cooler local climate of the region in northeastern France that lends its name to the wine. In fact, the very bubbles for which Champagne is known were originally a byproduct of winemakers attempting to compensate for unripe grapes: in adding sugar and yeast to the wine, ethanol, and carbon dioxide are formed, lending flavor and effervescence to the finished products.

The lack of acidity in Champagne's grapes today mean that wines taste less fresh than they used to. To compensate, rumor has it that some producers have resorted to synthetic measures, like acidifying their wines in the cellar, to preserve freshness.

“If this is true,” says Holthausen, “it is absolutely the antithesis of what we are doing here at AR Lenoble. You cannot spend years and years convincing people of the diverse terroirs of the Champagne region and then practice acidification. It’s just not possible!”

But for some, climate change may mean that these diverse terroirs aren't all they're cracked up to be for much longer. UK Secretary of State for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs Michael Gove even went so far as to recently claim that British vineyards would soon be producing better bubbly than Champagne.

“One of the opportunities of a changing climate is the chalky soil of parts of England, combined with the weather that we are having, means that English sparkling wine will have a bumper harvest,” he said. “It will soon bring a level of cheer to British drinkers greater than that provided by French champagne.”

He's not the only one to think so: one 2016 Wine and Spirit Trade Association blind tasting actually saw British bubbles ranked higher than Champagne in two categories.

Taste isn’t the only factor to consider: while for now, climate change has produced bumper crops in Champagne, early bud bursts could also mean more destructive spring frosts, and higher temperatures may introduce new pests and diseases.

Luckily, steps are already being taken in the region to protect the local wine. Bloomberg reports that Bruno Paillard is experimenting with covering vineyards with straw to protect devastating effects of too much sunlight on natural microbes, and Louis Roederer has been experimenting with biodynamics, to deepen the roots of the vines and help them handle heat and drought more easily.

At AR Lenoble, since 2010, the team has taken care to age reserve wines in magnums under natural cork, in order to preserve the sought-after freshness so characteristic of the local wine. The magnum format allows the wine to develop a subtle aroma that, when blended with non-vintage Champagnes, gives them a unique and exceptional flavor.

“Our biggest challenge in Champagne is going to be to maintain the freshness of our wines moving forward,” explains Holthausen. “Twenty years ago, we needed reserve wines to add richness and complexity to our wines but now, we need them to add richness, complexity and most importantly freshness.”

Champagne as a Champion for the Future

In addition to protecting the flavor of its wines, growers in the Champagne region have also been taking steps to reduce their impact on the environment since the 1980s. In doing so, growers hope not only to preserve their local terroir, but also to reduce the effects of climate change across the globe.

“The Champagne Region very quickly grasped that climate change was a priority issue and we were duty-bound to plan ahead,” explains Vincent Perrin, the director-general of the Comité Interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne, the organization grouping growers, cooperatives, and merchants in the region.

As a result of these early steps, in the early 2000s, Champagne became the world’s first wine-growing region to calculate its carbon footprint and implement a carbon plan, with attention paid towards transport, energy efficiency, and sustainability in agriculture. The Champagne region, on the whole, has since successfully cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 15 percent per bottle shipped and reduced pesticide use by 50 percent.

“It’s impossible for us to speculate on what could happen in the future,” says Holthausen. “I liken the future of the region to the current situation with the Brexit. There is only speculation but nobody knows for sure what is going to happen. The most important thing is for all agricultural producers around the world to work together to farm better, to be more conscientious, to collaborate and share best practices. 

"We are truly all in this together," he continues. "Sectarianism no longer has a place in the world.” 

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