Champagne is in the midst of a power struggle...
On the one hand, there’s pure commerce. Champagne sales reached six billion Euros for the first time ever in 2022 on the back of a punchy recovery from Covid and rising prices. As a wine so closely linked with good times and celebrations, it’s also an industry that has learnt, sometimes the hard way, how to survive periods when both are in short supply. Collective memory reaches back a fair way in the region – the First World War reduced sales by some 50% (with a sour 29% chaser from the global flu pandemic of 1918), followed by the Second World War and Great Depression at 31% and 12% respectively. Today, selling grapes at €8 per kilo in Champagne offers a level of comfort at the very least. In 1934, at 0.75 Fr per kilo (around 60 cents in today’s money), many families were facing ruin.
Growers are often the ones who feel the push and pull of the tide the strongest. No grapes? No income. If you’re only selling grapes, then the land has to work hard during the good times, and the yield limits set by Champagne’s governing bodies – regularly amongst the highest in the world per hectare – need to be thought of as targets rather than ceilings. So, how do you get the most out of each hectare of vineyard with the least financial input?
First of all, you have to fertilise in order to pump the vine up as cheaply as possible with synthetic nutrition. The trouble is that over-fertilisation is also going to give you a bit of a weed problem. So then you have to introduce herbicides to prevent competition from other plants which will suck up nutrients and water that would otherwise go into making more grapes. Then there are an array of other pests and diseases to battle. Unfortunately, monitoring what specifically needs to be tackled is expensive, so it’s more efficient just to spray against everything regularly.
This, in a nutshell, was where Champagne sat until at least the 1980s. Things are far better today, although there is still a silent mass of vineyards that escapes scrutiny. Contrary to what you might think, it’s often not the vineyards actually owned by the major houses that go totally off-grid in terms of sustainability. After all, modern corporate and social responsibility agendas mean that the majority now have their own vineyard work certified sustainable by one of Champagne’s two main yardsticks (HVE ‘High Environmental Value’ and VDC ‘Sustainable Viticulture In Champagne’), but the farmers who sell grapes to them, may not necessary follow these principles. Some, Grand Marques, such as Charles and Piper Heidseick, Lanson and LVMH go a step further by ensuring that their suppliers also all have certification, but many others are happy to remain silent on the issue.
The hard facts of commerce – more equals more – are immovable. Since the 1990s, though, Champagne has had a second skin in the form of estates and growers who solve the equation a different way; better viticulture, better wines and higher prices. When Champagne’s governing body rowed back on its promises to ensure that a herbicide ban went into the next version of the region’s rulebook, 125 growers wrote to Le Monde expressing their outrage. Champagne hardly wants the negative PR that follows infighting on sustainability, but those silent vineyards have less-than-silent owners. Owners who not only want to keep their yields, but who hold a vote on any changes to Champagne’s rulebook.
There’s no one hoop to jump through to become sustainable, but it’s clear that herbicide usage is a canary down the mine for something sub-standard. Hanging the whole issue on herbicides, though, seems like an oversimplification. In fact, Champagne’s own certifications, VDC and the wider HVE, both take more of an integrated, balanced approach to sustainability, allowing for the possibility that treatments for weeds, pests and fungal diseases may be needed so long as they are reasoned, measured and controlled. What you get, effectively, with VDC or HVE certification, is a guarantee that the wine producer is not on autopilot. Both have logos you can look out for on the bottle:
Is it best then to go a bit further still, to look for Champagne certified Organic or Biodynamic? Maybe, but there is one fly in the ointment: copper, which is authorised in both these regimes for treatments against downy mildew – Champagne’s most destructive disease. “Copper is a poison”, explained one top grower in Cramant as he weighed up whether it was better to use synthetic products and forget about strict organics. “When I look at my soil life, there are still dead patches from heavy copper use in the 1960s”. It is, however, ‘natural’, and many growers point to the fact that modern technology means the amounts used can be far, far smaller than they were in the past. Nonetheless, it certainly isn’t beneficial to the vineyard.
The organic surface area in Champagne is growing, though, now representing over 8% of the total area (versus a France-wide 20%). Of course, it is a lot harder to be organic in Champagne than it is in drier climates with shorter seasons, so anyone doing it successfully deserves a slightly harder pat on the back. It will be interesting to see whether 2021’s torrid season of rain and disease put the brakes on this growth though!
Finally, just to turn everything upside down, it remains the case that completely uncertified wines could actually be lower in impact than something that makes all the right noises and boasts all the right stickers. The omnipresence of sustainability discussions, and the subsequent greenwashing – the écoblanchiment – that marketing departments have become so adept at means it can be hard to pick out the producers really taking their responsibilities to heart. Sometimes there are obvious clues to how deep the ethos runs, such as the vintage and prestige bottlings in enormous plastic display boxes from producers that wax lyrical about their work to encourage honey bees. In truth, there is no failsafe way to look at a label and know for certain the environmental impact that wine has had and we need to read, listen and learn more about the people making our wines to make good calls. It may be a bit of work, but it’s far less effort than it is for those vignerons trying to move Champagne in the right direction.
Author of this article, Tom Hewson, writes about Champagne and Sparkling Wine for Tim Atkin MW and at https://sixatmospheres.
Sip Champagnes is committed to working with vignerons with the right environmental ethos...
Some our producers are certified HVE, VDC, organic or biodynamic and many more are working with these practices with a view to certification. There are, however, a number who go above and beyond with their practices to ensure they make as little environmental impact as possible. Here are three of the best:
Barrat Masson – Organic certified producer from the Côte de Sézanne. Working with predominantly Chardonnay to create wines true to terroir.
Vincent Charlot – Biodynamic certified since 2013. Vincent creates a great range of wonderful cuvées each year from his plots in and around Mardeuil.