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Green Champagne: The quickening march to sustainable vineyards

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Green Champagne: The quickening march to sustainable vineyards 

No French wine region has been revolutionised over the past two decades as dramatically as Champagne. And no appellation has needed it more desperately. For decades, Champagne has been the laughing stock of responsible growers everywhere, notoriously piling on herbicides, fungicides, pesticides, fertilisers and even Parisian rubbish to shamelessly bolster its poor vines to ludicrous yields. But the slow march to change is gathering momentum on the hillsides of Champagne, and in the past two years it has intensified like never before. Though not as you might expect. 

In the silent dormancy of winter, the skeletons of naked vines reveal the stark disparity of soil treatments, even from afar. From the upstairs terrace of his home above his Larmandier-Bernier cellars at the southern end of the Côte des Blancs, Pierre Larmandier showed me a panoramic view of the hillside of Vertus. ‘Ten years ago, we could look out and it was only our vineyards that appeared green in winter, thanks to grasses cultivated in the mid-rows, but now there are more and more,’ he points out excitedly. 

It’s a spectacular visual manifestation of a slow yet steady transformation in the mindset of Champagne growers. Just 17 years ago, Larmandier and Anselme Selosse (Jacques Selosse) expressed interest in purchasing a vineyard in Vertus, and the agent was surprised that both showed such interest in the way the vines had been tended, without the use of herbicides, having never seen buyers interested in this before. 

Selosse and Larmandier were instrumental among a small band of like-minded growers, the radical pioneers who inspired a generation of Champenois to embrace responsible viticulture. Their story is well familiar, and rightfully celebrated. Now a new chapter is unfolding, with an unexpected and dramatic twist. 

Later on the same day, I found myself bumping through the hallowed ground of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger on the edge of Vertus in the big truck of Larmandier’s neighbour, organic leader Pascal Doquet. A stark and surprising reality begins to emerge as he points out the green vineyards: Louis Roederer, Taittinger, Moët & Chandon. ‘The large houses are planting grasses in the mid-rows, ploughing and taking better care of the vines than the small growers,’ he reveals. 

The romanticised aura of growers as the heroes who are saving Champagne from the industrialised menace of the houses has long been the rhetoric of the wine world. Not only is this a fundamentally flawed and simplistic misconception, the truth today is that precisely the opposite is playing out between the vines. 

Nobody understands this better than Doquet, president of Champagne’s organic body, Association des Champagnes Biologiques. It was a sign of the evolution of the mindset of the region that Doquet was elected a board member of the Syndicat Général des Vignerons in 2018. ‘It was significant for them to have an organic grower in this position!’ he exclaims. 

‘The big houses are in contact with the customers and have to show a better and greener technique in response to public expectation,’ he points out. ‘Growers who are selling their grapes don’t have to show customers what they are doing in the vineyards.’ 

The truth in Champagne today is that the leaders in sustainability in the vines and the wines, those whose vineyards set the pace in thwarting chemical intervention and who inspire, encourage, cajole and incentivise their partners to take up the challenge and step into a new millennium of responsibility are, with a small number of notably famous exceptions, not by and large the growers themselves, but the houses and cooperatives, even and most notably some of the biggest players of all. 

Louis Roederer and Veuve Clicquot have forged forward as the new leaders of Champagne’s eco-revolution. ‘The change in the vineyards in the last decade has been unbelievable!’ enthuses Dominique Demarville (Veuve Clicquot). ‘The growers were the pioneers, and now the big houses have done great things in our own vineyards.’ 

The big dilemma of yields 

While it took famous growers to lead the charge towards more environmentally friendly practices, if this were to ever gain widespread traction, it had to be the big houses who took it up. For Champagne, sustainability is more than just doing the right thing for the vineyards, the workers, the planet and the customers – an eco-friendly approach shakes the very core of the fabric of the champagne model, not only in how the grapes are grown but, tellingly and crucially, in how the growers are paid. 

Champagne’s antiquated and grossly simplistic classification system has long dictated that growers are remunerated on nothing more than volume and cru, with a blatant disregard for quality. No wonder yields have spiralled in recent decades, reaching an average of nearly 100 hectolitres (hL) per hectare in the first decade of the new millennium, from less than 60hL over the 30 years prior. In the enormous 2018 vintage, there were reports of as much as 250hL per hectare on the southern Côte des Blancs. 

‘The problem with Champagne is that every grower considers the maximum yield permitted by the appellation to be an economic minimum,’ Jean-Hervé Chiquet (Jacquesson) admits. ‘About 90% of growers harvest the maximum permitted by the appellation, plus whatever remains on the vines.’ For the full story on excessive yields, see Has the Bubble Burst? in the The Champagne Guide 2014-2015. 

In 2018 the maximum permitted yield was 10.8 tonnes per hectare, plus an additional 4.7 tonnes for reserves, hence 15.5 tonnes in total. This equates to a maximum pressing of 98,800 litres per hectare, or 98.8hL, which breaks down to just under 80hL of cuvée and 19hL of tailles. Across the entire appellation, Champagne is currently averaging around 75hL per hectare. ‘In Vertus, you are considered a bad grower if you do not produce 100hL/hectare,’ reveals Larmandier, who limits his yields to 60–70hL. ‘People produce too much in the Côte des Blancs, and the big houses just buy everything.’ 

This creates a dilemma around sustainability, because herbicides, fungicides and chemical fertilisers bolster yields, while grasses cultivated in mid-rows create competition and diminish yields. ‘You lose in quantity but you win in quality,’ explains Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon, who manages Champagne’s biggest biodynamic vineyard at Louis Roederer. ‘It’s all about 
the discussion between quality and quantity. This has been the debate for 300 years.’ 

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