Climate Change and Champagne

Last year, the Comité Interprofessional du vin de Champagne (CIVC) permitted the beginning of harvest in parts of Champagne on the 19thAugust. This was just one day later than the previous record early start of 2003, and among a string of early-start records for the region. Prior to that, harvest had not been this early since 1822.[1]

The international scientific community leaves us with no doubt about man-made climate change. Regardless of the short term needs of politics and the scaremongering of heavy industry, it remains clear that atmospheric carbon dioxide is increasing at a rate beyond the initial predictions of the 1990’s. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report from 2007 shows an increase in average global temperatures over half a degree since 1950, and that this may be accelerating. Statistics from Champagne are themselves an exaggeration of this global pattern. That this will have impacts on viticulture everywhere seems beyond doubt. Add to this the increase in extreme weather, increased frosts, extreme summer rains and the outlook is challenging to say the least.

It’s true to say that Champagne lies at the Northernmost fringe of climate for grape production. In Champagne, the result will be that the average harvest date will come earlier, and grape maturity will generally increase, in terms of sugar concentration, fruit flavour intensity and lower acidity. On top of this, disease risk from increased summer rain seems inevitable.

The decrease in planting of Pinot Meunier, and corresponding increase in planting of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, may well be a response to the reduced need for a late budding, fast ripening variety. Or rather, it may be an increase in the certainty of ripening Pinot Noir and Chardonnay to full maturity.

The second development in Champagne in rising popularity of Brut Nature or Sauvage wines, having very low or zero sugar added at disgorging. These observations reflect the Champagne producers’ response to style, consumer preference, fashion and climate to more or less degrees, but nonetheless they are consistent with overall warming.

So what might we expect? Considering that ripeness increases sugar, flavour while decreasing acidity, it seems reasonable to anticipate developments along these lines. It seems likely that the shift in varietal planting will continue, with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay continuing to displace Pinot Meunier. Traditionally cooler sites will come to the fore.

Without doubt, the breadth of stylistic options will increase, just as it does naturally in the superior, relatively warm vintages. Based on warming we might well expect sugars to rise, fruit flavour to increase and acid levels to fall. This might result in oenological outcomes such as a decreased requirement for chaptilisation, or a reduced usage of malolactic fermentation to soften acidity, or less prolonged bottle maturation, or lower dosage sugar levels, or increased usage of oak. Wines might well become richer, fuller, rounder and higher in alcohol. On top of this, the requirement to sweeten the wine at dosage as a final balancing step in the process will most likely continue to reduce – not just in line with the current fashion for dryer styles.

Or perhaps the response will be far more complicated than this. For surely the above predictions are gross oversimplifications of what we can expect from a responsive and intelligent regional industry. There is far too much at stake to expect no adaptation from the vignerons. Instead, we might also expect viticultural adaptations of canopy management, yield and choice of variety (and clone) to mitigate the warming effects. Furthermore, the choice of harvest timing will more accurately reflect the producer’s detailed needs in terms of sugar, flavour and acidity. The decisions of vinification will reflect the need to balance the impacts of season, so that malolactic fermentation and extended ageing will become more considered to deliver the optimum palate balance at consumption. That this will further impact the ageing and post-disgorgement characters of the wines is almost certain.

Finally, it seems reasonable to expect a degree to shuffling to take place, in so far as the market measures reputation, brand and house style. Each producer, big or small, is faced with the enormous challenge of mutable terroir. The understood climatic elements of each vineyard site are rapidly on the move. Faced with these changes it remains for the vignerons’ intelligence and attention to detail to make or break fortunes.

Fortunately for Champagne drinkers, the enormous diversity of sites and mesoclimates means that Champagne will continue to deliver wines of finesse and drive long into our current lifetimes. Adding to this the range of winemaking choices surrounding acidity, ripeness and balance available to the Champenois producer, we can expect that many great wines are yet to come. When considering the implications of climate change for the little village of Vosne-Romanée, we cannot be quite so optimistic.


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