Champagne struggles with bitter sweet reasons for a bumper harvest

The corks are popping in France’s Champagne region this year after a wet winter and an exceptionally hot summer produced a bumper crop. Eric Lebel, chef de caves at Krug, told Best Champagne website that producers “have never seen such a beautiful year for as long as we can remember”.

Champagne is one of the few premium wine growing areas in Europe that are benefiting from our globe’s warming climate. Temperatures in northern France have increased by 1.2 degrees centigrade in 30 years, moving the harvest forward by about a fortnight.

But the reasons for the current great grape harvest of course mask an implicit threat. What happens to the world’s most prestigious Grand Crus when temperatures climb just a fraction further? Master vintners know that too much heat risks creating cloyingly sweet wines, without the fresh acidity that the best champagnes are known for.

Across Europe, hotter temperatures are reshaping the wine industry. In the south of Spain and Italy, there is serious concern about heat drying out the wines. Meanwhile some areas are benefiting: the UK’s fledgling industry is garnering accolades and in Germany there has been a Riesling renaissance.

Back in Champagne, climate change could have a huge impact on the EU economy as a whole. The industry employs 30,000 people and its 2017 exports to more than 190 countries were worth almost €5 billion. The region represents 0.4 per cent of world vineyard acreage and 4 per cent of France’s total vineyard area.

In some senses the region has been grappling with climate change seriously for a couple of decades already. “The Champagne Region very quickly grasped that climate change was a priority issue and we were duty-bound to plan ahead,” says Vincent Perrin, the director general of the Comité Champagne.

In 2003, Champagne cut the weight of its bottles by 7 per cent. In a decade, the region managed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 15 per cent per bottle shipped, making it one of the few industries to have reduced its emissions in absolute terms.

All that might help with global warming as a whole, and it sets a good example, but it won’t save the quality of the champagne unless the whole world takes similar initiatives. In the meantime, the vintners are focusing on the terroir itself and farmers are taking surprisingly divergent approaches when it comes to vineyard management.

For example, the Comité Champagne has been working with the French National Institute for Agricultural Research to invent new hybrid grape varieties that will ripen more slowly in warmer conditions and be more resistant to pests.

It’s a long-term project, but experiments are being done to blend the most popular grapes in champagne – chardonnay, pinot noir and meunier – with other varietals that thrive in higher temperatures. The first seeds have been planted, but full analysis of the resulting wines is not expected until 2030.

Some techniques being tried come straight from the chemistry lab, with winemakers blocking malolactic fermentation, the second fermentation in a barrel which converts malic acid to soft lactic acid, in order to retain a fresher taste.

Others have gone back to basics, adopting a sub-culture of organic farming called biodynamics, which dictates that all elements of a farm should be run as a holistic ecosystem with vineyard operations conducted in recognition of their surroundings and in accordance with the celestial calendar.

The idea is that resulting improvements in the soil and surrounds create deeper rooted and stronger plants that will be better able to adapt to their changing circumstances.

This approach of returning to first principles has captured the heart and attention of one of the most prestigious houses in the region. Louis Roederer, maker of Cristal, the rap stars’ favourite fizz, says “tailor-made viticulture enables us to produce exceptionally mature grapes, despite the changeable Champagne climate”.

Louis Roederer now has about 250 acres either under organic, or biodynamic, cultivation, with horses rather than tractors deployed for much of the farm work.

The long-term prospects are uncertain, but between the scientists and back-to-basics devotees there is a huge effort going into finding a way forward amid global warming. Even so, the fanciest wine tours of 2050 are still likely to be taking a swing through Kent in southern England.