This article originally appeared on VICE Italy.
Nothing says New Year’s Eve like popping a bottle of fizzy wine. Cava, Spumante, Franciacorta, Cremant – many versions of this festive drink can be found across different European countries. But nothing can top the most famous sparkling wine: Champagne, made in the French region bearing the same name, and seen by purists as absolutely irreplaceable.
And yet, just like every other food item, Champagne grapes are not immune to the big changes happening to our planet. There are two sides to climate change’s impacts on the Champagne region. On the one hand, the warmer summers with cool nights have actually made the Champagne produced in the last few years taste better. On the other hand, all the maisons – the wine houses making Champagne – know the situation could soon precipitate.
"Anyone who says there is no climate change is lying," says Alexandre Chartogne, from the maison of Chartogne Taillet, who has noticed the vines now ripen much earlier than ever before.
Champaigne bottles from the Maison Lermandier Bernier. Photo by the author.
This observation was confirmed by his competitor, Arthur Lermandier of Maison Lermandier Bernier, who said he had to reorganise his traditional August family vacations accordingly. “It's not a problem though, the harvest is thrilling,” Lermandier reports. “For people like us who make wine in-house the traditional way, it's a blessing at the moment. It won’t be so good in ten years, obviously."
Over 16,100 winemakers grow their crop in small plots that litter the northeastern region of Champagne. Anyone who’s been there knows that its food and climate are unfortunately anything but inviting (with a few exceptions, of course). But despite its less charming offerings, the region is still very much worth visiting if you're into wine, given its abundance of bubbly nectar and fancy Champagne cellars.
A champagne wine cellar. Photo by the author.
Of course, you better come prepared: the main maisons – like Pommery, Veuve Clicquot or Pol Roger – are almost always open to the public. But if you want to visit smaller producers, you might want to arrange things in advance and make sure you let them know you’re looking to buy.
The last time I personally visited the region was in autumn 2019, before the pandemic. The harvest that year was quite late and had finished just a few days before my arrival. The sky was cloudy, the sun only glancing through every once in a while. No wonder winemakers are happy things might warm up soon, especially since grapevines usually thrive in regions with higher temperatures.
In fact, the average annual temperature of the Champagne region is between ten and 11 degrees Celsius, with about 1,800 hours of sunshine per year, 235 more hours than 30 years ago. By comparison, the Bordeaux region, the most prolific wine-producing area in France, has an average annual temperature of 13.8 degrees Celsius and receives over 2,100 hours of sunshine a year.
The cloudy sky in the Champagne region. Photo by the author.
Over the course of the last 30 years, the Champagne region’s average temperature rose by 1.1 degrees Celsius, benefiting local wine production. According to press releases from the Comité Champagne (French for “Champagne Committee”), a local organisation of winemakers and growers, the harvests of 2018, 2019 and 2020 were all “outstanding”.
But statistical models have predicted global warming is likely to cause extremely cold springs and hot summers in the region, messing with the delicate balance that makes its wine unique. The greatest threat to the harvest for Champagne grapes is when they freeze during spring nights. “In the future, we’re likely to get a lot more ice around here,” says Alexandre Chartogne from the maison of Chartogne-Taillet.
Pommery Champagne. Photo by the author.
The Comité Champagne, which includes both big brands and smaller maisons, has been at the forefront of reducing the environmental impact of wines made in the region, particularly when it comes to pesticide-induced soil and water pollution. They are also pushing growers to reduce the carbon footprint caused by the storage and transportation of wine and grapes, plus the emissions from the tractors used in the harvest.
"The environmental diagnosis of the Champagne region started in 2001 with an analysis of the entire supply chain, which we used to calculate our carbon footprint,” said Pierre Naviaux, the committee’s head of sustainable development. “We adopted our own [environmental] certification instead of relying on the national one, which came later.” Their goal is to become “100 percent environmentally friendly by 2030”, Naviaux said, which he defines solely as the sustainable growth of organic grapes throughout the region.
The grape harvest in Champagne. Photo courtesy of Comité Champagne
To achieve that, the Comité is trying to bring every actor involved to the table and facilitate the implementation of cutting-edge pesticide-free growing techniques. One of them involves pheromone diffusers: devices that pump chemicals used by bugs to attract a mate in all directions, confusing the males. As a result, the bugs never get to meet and produce offspring, leading to a natural reduction in pests.
Epernay, a village in the champagne region. Photo courtesy of Comité Champagne.
Some endemic animal species might be unwelcome to wine producers, but a big part of Naviaux’s work revolves around preserving the rest of the plants and animals that live alongside the vines. “We did a census of the flora and devised a plan on how to maintain these spaces,” Naviaux says. “We recorded 350 species, some even rare, as well as 50 birds and about 100 earthworms per square meter. These are essential for the ecosystem. Without them, we cannot function.”
In fact, vineyards are much more than just rows of grapevines. “A topic that is rarely talked about is the agro-ecological infrastructure [surrounding the grape vines] – the dry stone walls, the roadsides where vegetation grows,” Naviaux adds. “These can be gold for biodiversity."
A champagne bottle from the Mason Chartogne-Taillet. Photo by the author.
This eco-friendly approach has been embraced by some winegrowers more than others, creating a bit of a generational gap in the area. Alexandre Chartogne, for instance, had a hard time convincing his dad that pesticide-free was the way to go. "I told him that we should never use pesticides again, and he would sneakily give them to the vines in the evening, when I couldn’t see it," he says, laughing.
"I can't blame [my parents] – they’re from another generation,” he continues. “It’s now our duty to move towards sustainable agriculture. We want to make sure future generations can still work here.” Now that he’s taken over the business, Maison of Chartogne-Taillet has implemented those changes.
That sums up the beauty of the Champagne region – local winemakers who love their land, with most businesses operating as a family affair passed on from generation to generation. It’s also a fizzy money pot where land is worth, on average, over €1.3 million per hectare. Either way, it’s definitely worth preserving for your kids and for the rest of the rapidly warming world.