Opinion: Scene change in Champagne

Richard Woodard

07 February 2020

Climate change is having a real effect on champagne production. How can we safeguard the future of the world’s favourite sparkling wine, asks Richard Woodard?

For the second year running, there are smiles on faces in Champagne. Despite losses to frost and mildew on the Côte des Blancs, the 2019 harvest looks promising. For the champenois, however, unequivocal happiness is an alien concept. There are strange things happening in the vineyard – phenomena that raise questions about the short- and long-term impacts of climate change.

These developments do not (yet) pose an existential threat to champagne. But the reaction of houses and growers to climatic trends now will play a vital role in safeguarding the pre-eminence of the world’s favourite sparkling. During the 2019 harvest, Ruinart chef de cave Frédéric Panaïotis found himself in ‘unknown territory’, forced to wait until Chardonnay reached a potential alcohol level of 11-11.5% before picking. ‘This year, 10-10.5% is not ripe,’ he says. Some growers have gone further this year, pushing as far as 12-12.5%, or even 13%. ‘I think this is like something for Instagram Stories,’ says Panaïotis scornfully. ‘You know, “my car is more powerful than yours”.’

Like many other winemaking regions, Champagne is concerned about the bigger picture here: what is going to happen in 20, 30 or 40 years’ time? While 2003 was the first August harvest since 1893, there have been four since: 2007, 2011, 2015 and 2018.

For the moment, the impact of rising temperatures has been largely positive, but also multi-faceted. Panaïotis finds himself using less red wine in Ruinart’s rosé blends, unsure how much this is related to climate change, and how much to developments in viticulture and winemaking. Ask Krug chef de cave Eric Lebel about reports that Pinot Meunier has lost freshness in recent years, and he shakes his head, arguing that the extra warmth has been positive, with a little more sugar, and a little less acidity. ‘It’s up to Krug to adapt,’ he adds, ‘to adapt the dates of the harvest depending on climate.’

This is the key. Changing conditions are expanding the parameters of what is possible, but there’s a fine line between making the most of those changes and getting carried away, sacrificing character and style in the process. ‘The last decade makes us think about what should be, in new conditions of global warming, a new level of maturity,’ says Vincent Chaperon, chef de cave at Dom Pérignon. ‘I’m sure that the vintages you drink today are going further in intensity than vintages of the past.’ Then again, just because you can harvest grapes at 13% potential alcohol doesn’t mean you should. ‘With opportunities come a lot of questions,’ Chaperon continues. ‘It’s not that the further you go, the better it is. With white wine you can go too far, too quickly. ‘With still wine for champagne you can overpass maturity and get something that’s too heavy. We want to bring back precision next to the depth.’

For anyone tasting, buying and selling champagne, these are intriguing times. The most successful winemakers will be those who exploit the changing climate, but don't forget that champagne is a wine of energy and vibrancy – and, as a result, pull back a little. Sometimes there’s virtue in restraint.


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