INTERNATIONAL - In the cold, chalky cellars deep underground at boutique Champagne house A.R. Lenoble, co-owner Antoine Malassagne shares his worries about the future of the region’s world-famous fizz. Its classic style depends on crisp, zingy acidity and edgy, fruity, salty, mineral flavors, the result of deep, chalky soil and an until-now very cool climate.
But here’s his question: How can the taste we love stay the same in the face of climate change?
So far, global warming has mostly put chilly Champagne in a climatic sweet spot, with average temperatures that ensure grapes ripen every year. But that's not the whole story, says Malassagne. Buds appear earlier, so spring frosts are more destructive. Warmer nights push maturity but also encourage new pests and diseases.
“Harvest is two weeks earlier than it was 20 years ago,” he explains on a very hot July morning at his winery in Damery, a 15-minute drive from Epernay, Champagne’s epicenter. “It used to be mid-to-late September. Now harvest often starts in August, as it will this year. But maturity during hot days and nights results in lower and lower acidity in the grapes, which means less freshness in the wines.” It’s also essential to Champagne’s taste: Acidity is what allows the wines to age.
In 2010, Malassagne started working on ways to make sure there was enough, well, zing in his future bubbly.
Champagne’s basic technique of blending different varieties (chardonnay, pinot noir, and sometimes meunier), vineyards, and vintages is the way winemakers compensated for poor years. Reserve wine from older vintages, for example, added depth, complexity, and richness when grapes didn’t fully ripen.
Now Malassagne is creating reserve wines to add “freshness,” too, by conserving them in magnums under natural cork to preserve brighter flavors. Some 70,000 of these are stockpiled in the long, dimly lit cellar. His two lively, delicious new cuvées—Lenoble Intense “mag 14” and Lenoble Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs Chouilly “mag14”, launched in May—are the first to incorporate these new reserves.
That’s only one of the many ways the Champenois are trying to maintain the sparkling style we know. Champagne Bruno Paillard is experimenting with covering the soil in vineyards with straw to prevent sunlight from destroying microbial life. Others are using winemaking techniques such as blocking malolactic fermentation (the second fermentation in the barrel that converts fresh-tasting malic acid to softer lactic acid) to bring greater perceived acidity to the wine.
Over the past two decades, Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon, the chef de cave at super-star Louis Roederer, has been systematically experimenting with everything from biodynamic viticulture to DNA analysis of yeast to gentler forms of pruning and reinventing winemaking techniques for chardonnay, all “to maintain what has made Champagne’s reputation.”
Roederer is the most innovative large producer in Champagne right now, and its superb wines are just getting better and better. The current non-vintage Brut Premier is the best I’ve ever tasted, and the just-released, brilliant 2008 (from an old-style, cool vintage with a late harvest that continued into October) has a precision and purity that seem almost electric.
One of Lecaillon’s solutions to climate change is to give more natural resilience to the vineyard ecosystem, so the vines can withstand new insects and more extreme conditions. “My conclusion is that with biodynamics, the vines have more energy,” he says. “With deeper roots, they’re better able to handle heat and drought, and the wines have more freshness.”
As we sample great vintages of Roederer’s top cuvée Cristal over lunch, Lecaillon sounded hopeful as he reminds me: “We invented bubbles to make up for unripe grapes. As farmers, our job, our life, our passion has been to adapt to climate change for hundreds of years. If the future heats up too much,” he jokes (I think), “we’ll just have to make Burgundy.”
How bad is the threat, anyway?
The 2003 heat wave, when France baked in record summer temperatures, was a wake-up call for many growers. Over the last six months in 2018, according to the Comité Champagne (CIVC) trade association, the region has been 2 degrees hotter than normal, and this will be the fifth vintage of the last 15 to start harvest in August.
Growers say it’s alarming that temperatures have risen so quickly. A European Academies’ Science Advisory Council (EASAC) report published earlier this year also described how droughts, fires, freakish weather patterns, and extreme heat waves have more than doubled since 1980. But despite heat and several violent hailstorms, this year will see a bumper crop—unless hail hits again before harvest.
Can grape tech save the day?
Technology offers more potential solutions. Over breakfast in Reims, Thibaut Le Mailloux, the communications director of the CIVC, outlined one of the organization’s long-term projects, a team effort 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.
Since 2010, their scientists have been crossing pinot noir, chardonnay, and meunier, the three most important grapes with super-géniteur varieties. Starting with 4,000 seeds planted in the CIVC’s experimental vineyard, several will eventually be selected that seem to have the resistant genes, and also—this is the catch—offer the same distinctive flavors and acidity. The next step will be to see whether wines made from those grapes age in the same way. All this will take a couple of decades.
Only seven grape varieties are permitted in Champagne. In addition to the three most important, four mostly forgotten grapes—petite meslier, pinot blanc, fromenteau, and arbane—may gain prominence in the future. Lean, green petit meslier grapes, for example, retain huge acidity, even in very hot vintages. Family-owned Champagne Drappier is one of a handful of wineries reviving these.
What about carbon cutting?
The CIVC first assessed the industry’s carbon footprint in 2002. Since then, the region’s growers have significantly cut emissions, taken to recyclying all the water used in wineries, reduced pesticides by 50 percent, and begun using lighter-weight Champagne bottles, the equivalent in emissions of removing 8,000 cars from the road each year.
Future-focused Drappier became the first Champagne house to be carbon-neutral, and in 2017 began using a bottle made from 87 percent recycled glass. To encourage electric vehicle use, it has set up charging stations.
The younger generation, such as Cedric Moussé, who manages his eponymous family winery, has a heightened sensibility about climate change. Moussé was 23 when the CIVC began talking about producers reducing their carbon footprints.
“There are 1,000 small things we can do,” he says, as he walks me through his eco-conception of a winery. “I think about every choice, from how to plant vines, so grapes take more time to mature, to using bottles, labels, shipping boxes and machinery produced less than 50 miles away.” But will it be enough?