Tyson Stelzer on Connoisseur

Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble

Written by Tyson Stelzer

Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble 

Champagne’s fight against climate change intensifies 

Does global warming spell certain doom for the region that has built a wine style around its cold climate? Things have hotted up in Champagne since I unravelled the climatic drama that has played out over the past 30 years in The Champagne Guide 2014–2015. The region has responded in force, and it’s time for a sequel. 

The weather in Champagne has become dramatically more extreme and unpredictable over the past three decades, and this is a bigger concern for the region’s vineyards than an increase in temperature of close to 1.2 degrees Celsius. The 2016 season brought catastrophic frost, hail and rain, inflicting the most widespread devastation in history, only to be outdone by the toughest season in living memory the very next year, decimated by the worst rot Champagne has ever seen. There was rejoicing in the streets when 2018 brought record yields of clean fruit of unprecedented ripeness, but enthusiasm waned when vins clairs lacked acidity and endurance. And as The Champagne Guide 2020-2021 goes to print, the 2019 crop is just weeks away from harvest, after an all-time record late-July heatwave of 42 degrees Celsius shrivelled grapes to raisins (pictured above). 

‘How can we manage and anticipate these spectacularly chaotic climatic events?’ Charles Heidsieck chef de cave Cyril Brun commented to me in dismay mid-way through the harrowing 2017 harvest. 

In a region that has devoted centuries to refining its viticulture and winemaking to build ripeness and generosity – not to mention a wine style conceived in answer to cold seasons – there is much that is being done. The Champenois have rallied and launched a concerted response that encompasses everything from where, how and which grapes are grown, to the methods of vinification and even the fundamental style of the wine itself. 

Pick earlier 

‘We started harvest in August in 2003, 2007, 2011, 2015, 2017 and 2018,’ observes Ruinart chef de cave Frédéric Panaïotis. ‘There were only two August harvests in the last century and already six this century, so if this isn’t a sign of global warming, what is?!’ 

In the past 30 years, Champagne harvest dates have moved forward by a fortnight. ‘When I arrived in Champagne 25 years ago, the harvest was at the end of September, and now it is mid-September, and one year in three it is at the end of August,’ observes Veuve Clicquot chef de cave Dominique Demarville. 

Accelerated ripening during August has introduced a new challenge in determining the optimum date of harvest. ‘This is the new issue, waiting for flavour and phenolic maturity while the sugar level continues to rise,’ reveals Rodolphe Péters, who took a risk against rising rot by holding off harvesting his Pierre Péters chardonnay in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger until it achieved flavour ripeness at a high sugar level of 11.5 degrees potential in 2017. 

Harvest faster 

Harvesting during the warmer weeks of August means that ripeness is moving faster, as is the risk of the onset of rot. Péters picked his entire 2017 crop in one week rather than two. 

‘It’s not just enough to decide when you want to harvest, you need to have the resources to do it!’ points out Charles Heidsieck chef de cave Cyril Brun. 

In the village of Vertus, brothers Charles-Henry and Emmanuel Fourny invested in a second press in 2018 to keep up with the new pace of harvest. 

Send in the robots 

A faster response calls for both infrastructure and a workforce, and Champagne is facing a new crisis of manual labour. ‘The challenge for us is to find the workers in the vineyard, because the young generation would rather work in an office,’ says Demarville. This is exacerbated in August, when most of Europe would prefer to be sunning itself on a faraway beach. 

‘I think we will have robots harvesting sooner than expected, because it’s too hard to get pickers today,’ predicts Sophie Déthune at Paul Déthune in Ambonnay. ‘It’s hard to imagine that 20 years ago we had to get an answering machine for the phone because everyone was calling us offering to pick! Now we don’t get a single call.’ 

Demarville believes robots will be very important for the future of Champagne. ‘We introduced robots in the wineries and the cellars 20 years ago, and now the next step is to use them in the vineyards,’ he suggests. 

Numerous robot trials are currently underway in the region, but not everyone is convinced. ‘I fight against the robots, because the more you go in that direction, the more you lose contact,’ says Louis Roederer chef de cave Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon. ‘The story of wine is about going into my terroir, not with satellites and robots, but staying in touch with the soils and the vines and the wines.’ 

Pick at night 

With increasingly warm and early harvests, it’s not uncommon for afternoon temperatures to reach 30–35 degrees Celsius. Warm grapes oxidise much faster than cold grapes, so Demarville is negotiating with his vineyard teams to pick during the cooler hours of the day, by contrast to the traditional French work day. ‘We can have people picking from 5am to 1pm,’ he suggests. ‘And we must learn how to pick at night.’ Some have attempted night picking with head-mounted mining lamps, but this has proven challenging and increases the cost of the grapes. Robots may be the answer. 

Chill the grapes 

In 2019, Billecart-Salmon was the first in Champagne to build a cold room to chill the grapes, with capacity to chill 40–45 tonnes to 5 degrees Celsius overnight. The afternoon’s harvest is ready for cold pressing at 5am the following morning. ‘Instead of chilling the musts, we chill the grapes!’ exclaims Antoine Roland-Billecart. ‘We have done trials, and overnight chilling makes a big difference in acid retention in the grapes.’ 

Others in the region are contemplating the same, from growers as small as Veuve Fourny to houses as large as Dom Pérignon itself. ‘We can’t chill prior to pressing like they do elsewhere, because we have such a huge volume harvested in such a short time,’ suggests Dom Pérignon chef de cave Vincent Chaperon. ‘And it is also a question of energy.’ 

More precise viticulture 

‘To keep sufficient acidity and freshness, we must change how we cultivate the vineyards and ensure the roots go deeper and deeper,’ Demarville emphasises. This necessitates a much more eco-friendly approach in the vines. The extremes of recent seasons have prompted an imperative for sustainable viticulture across Champagne like never before (see The Champagne Guide 2020-2021 pages 62–65). 

Péters suggests that even Champagne’s low, closely spaced vineyard rows might need to be reconsidered. ‘It’s very hard to grow low vines close together without fungicides and herbicides,’ he points out. ‘We will have to change our method of cultivation and find ways to enlarge the rows and train higher canopies.’ 

Brun suggests a detailed, individualised approach to each vineyard site. ‘I feel we are going to enter into an era of viticultural precision,’ he says, ‘by treating groups of plots in particular ways and working more precisely. Different sites, different clones and different varieties respond differently.’ 

Plant new varieties 

Champagne’s warming climate has spurred a renewed interest in the region’s ‘old’ varieties of pinot gris, pinot blanc and, most of all, petit meslier and arbane. In the very warm 2018 vintage, Bollinger harvested petit meslier and arbane at a full ripeness of 12.5 degrees potential and fantastic acidity of 7g/L. ‘The old varieties are interesting for us in the wake of global warming,’ says chef de cave Gilles Descôtes. ‘We don’t need them now, but we might in 20 years!’ 

The Comité Champagne has a project underway to create hybrid varieties that will mature slower, hold their acidity longer and exhibit greater resistance to disease in warmer seasons. Such extreme measures are more than controversial. ‘I’m not sure they are true to the champagne tradition,’ suggests Charles Philipponnat, president of Philipponnat. ‘Personally I think we should maintain the best of what we have.’ 

Lécaillon agrees. ‘It is completely crazy to suggest we should change the varieties in champagne!’ he exclaims. ‘I make sparkling wine from chardonnay and pinot in California, and I have done so in Tasmania, and you can adapt the way you grow and make wines to suit the climate. I think the biggest mistake we could make is to change the varieties – we would lose all that we have built in history. We don’t have pinot, chardonnay and meunier here because someone decided it would be good, but because these varieties are suited to the soils and suited to the place.’ 

Create new clones 

A more sensible response is to play with clones rather than varieties. Lécaillon shares a nursery with other like-minded estates, including Pierre Péters, to cultivate a wide selection of clones. ‘Some clones are better suited to warm weather than others,’ points out Rodolphe Péters, who evolves his clonal selection according to changes in climate, pressure of disease and even evolving popular tastes. 

Meanwhile, the freshening influence of chardonnay has never been in higher demand in champagne blends, and many are replanting meunier and pinot noir to chardonnay. ‘In the future, we will need more chardonnay, less meunier, and pinot noir with more freshness,’ says Brun. 

Plant new areas 

The push to expand the Champagne appellation has been on hold for a decade, ever since the global financial crisis put a dampener on sales growth, but the opportunity for the region to reconsider sites better suited to warmer temperatures is compelling. ‘Maybe there are some current lands that are no longer suitable?’ postulates Brun. ‘And maybe there are some areas that we need to plant? We are moving further north.’ 

Block malolactic 

Of all the strategies to counter warmer seasons in the winery, blocking malolactic fermentation is the one that many houses and growers are increasingly trialling. ‘To maintain energy, balance and finesse, if we need to increase the malic acidity we will,’ reveals Alice Paillard of Bruno Paillard. ‘Everything needs to change for everything to stay the same!’ 

Many houses who have traditionally always carried out malolactic fermentation are blocking it in more and more parcels. ‘With malolactic and with oak, it does not have to be everything or nothing, it could be in between,’ suggests Brun. ‘We need to be globally more flexible in everything we do, to be able to do a lot of work in a short time, and to deal quickly with emergencies. We have to be quite pragmatic and ready to learn from our mistakes. The Champenois can be perceived to be quite arrogant. But we need to keep our feet on the ground and to redefine what is champagne.’ 

Use fresher reserves 

For the little house of AR Lenoble in Damery, climate change has fundamentally turned the role of reserve wines on its head. ‘In the past, reserves were about adding complexity and depth to a blend,’ says head of the house, Antoine Malassagne, ‘but after four of the earliest harvests in history this century, acidity levels are much lower than they used to be, and we are now talking about how we can use reserves to enhance freshness.’ 

Such progressive change of thinking applies not only to the small players. ‘For me, the new challenge in Champagne is selecting the reserves,’ reveals Moët & Chandon chef de cave, Benoît Gouez. 

Play with phenolics 

A warmer climate threatens to challenge even the fundamentals of what defines the champagne style and its ageing potential. ‘We are probably at the end of a cycle where we had only to rely on the acidities for longevity,’ Brun suggested disconcertingly as we tasted his 2018 vins clairs, with but half the malic acidity of a normal year. 

Chaperon has been contemplating this since 2003, the vintage that recorded the lowest acidity on record. ‘Freshness, vibrancy and tension are more important to Dom Pérignon than acidity,’ he discloses. ‘And we have more levers to achieve this than acidity – we have minerality, phenolics, bitterness and aromatics. In particularly ripe seasons like 2009, we have to play with other dimensions like phenolics to maintain freshness.’ 

Release vintages earlier 

Many houses made the astute decision to release the fast-maturing 2009 vintage before the enduring 2008, and such dexterity is increasingly important as Champagne’s vintage extremes become ever more pronounced. 

This is exacerbated by the recent decline in sales of vintage champagne, now the surprise poorest-performing category of all. ‘We have a problem in Champagne, a big problem,’ declares Duval-Leroy chef de cave Sandrine Logette-Jardin. ‘Because of climate change, we have the ability to make more and more vintage cuvées, but we don’t have the ability to sell all of them.’ In response, Duval-Leroy has made the bold and unexpected decision to market its vintage cuvées and prestige Femme de Champagne as non-vintage in all but the very finest vintages. Pierre Péters has done the same with its Millésime L’Esprit and Blanc de Blancs Extra Brut NV. 

Declining sales push vintage releases out – a great virtue for enduring seasons blessed by extended lees age, but a pitfall for vintages without the stamina to go the distance. ‘Most Champenois think the 2018 vintage will perform well, but I don’t expect it will age at all well, and if they release it in order, it will be too late,’ Brun warns. ‘But it would be daring to release 2018 before 2014!’ 

Make coteaux champenois 

This year I have made two sojourns to Burgundy, the place that provides more context and perspective for the future of Champagne than any other. Not only in warming climates and trends in viticulture, vinification and single-site bottlings, but in the production of chardonnay and pinot noir as still wines. 

Coteaux Champenois still wines have long been an interesting curio, largely constrained to smaller players and little production volumes, but recent warmer vintages have enticed many houses to come out to play. The 2015 and especially 2018 harvests marked a turning point, and I have seen sneak previews of stunning new Coteaux Champenois in development for the first time at Louis Roederer, Veuve Clicquot, Charles Heidsieck and André Clouet. 

Coteaux Champenois is innovating backwards,’ proposes Lécaillon, ‘because whenever they had lunches here in the 1950s they had a glass of champagne, a glass of Coteaux Champenois blanc and a glass of Coteaux Champenois rouge. And in 20 years’ time we might do super white wines or red wines! Champagne’s handicap until now has been ripeness, so we created sparkling wine because we didn’t have the climate to make still wine, and if we no longer have that handicap, then we will do something different. Climate is changing, and it has always changed, and it is the ultimate job of farmers to adapt to the changes. Let’s not complain about it, but embrace it and find the tricks and the wine styles that can make the best possible wines in this place at this time. Before 1850, there was more still wine than sparkling wine produced in Champagne. And maybe history will reinvent itself and we will go back to that? Maybe in years to come we won’t make sparkling wine anymore. That wouldn’t be a problem.’ 

Such radical suggestions would change the game for Champagne. But don’t fear, the bubbles are here to stay, and Coteaux Champenois will remain in their shadow for at least the foreseeable future, if for no other reason than economic necessity – great Coteaux Champenois demands half the yields of champagne, and the region can’t afford this en masse just yet. 

Warming to climate change 

Climate change to date has been a blessing for Champagne. ‘For now, the weather in Champagne is for the better,’ says Francis Egly, Champagne’s finest grower at Egly-Ouriet in Ambonnay. ‘Twenty or thirty years ago, we sometimes had very difficult years in which it was very hard to achieve good ripeness, but now this is easier.’ 

‘One day it might be for the worst if it goes too far,’ foresees Jean-Hervé Chiquet at Jacquesson, ‘but for now we are eliminating the worst vintages of the past, like 1972, 1977 and 1984.’ 

Even on the warmest site in all of Champagne, Charles Philipponnat agrees. ‘It is true that on average grapes are riper, but so far this has been a good thing for Champagne,’ he says. ‘Clos des Goisses is a good case study, because technically it is too warm by Champagne standards, but it hasn’t been a problem yet. I believe the soil and the slope and the regime are more important than the temperature. Our wines today are grown in warmer conditions than 20 years ago and we have gained precision, so what is the problem?’ 

In spite of the challenges facing Champagne today, the ultimate measure must always come down to the quality of the wine in the bottle. For Champagne’s top houses, who rigorously uphold fanatical attention to the finest detail in their vines and their wines, while maintaining an adaptable dexterity in the wake of the frenzy of changes around them, that quality has never been higher than it is today. 

‘It’s time to move further,’ invites Chaperon. ‘To stay true to what champagne is, but to move beyond. Not to be a prisoner to our own rules and our strict appellation, but to change and reinvent. What will be the champagne of 2050? This is the question.’ 

This article is an excerpt from The Champagne Guide 2020-2021 by Tyson Stelzer. Available now in hardback and ebook. 

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