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How far away is truly “sustainable” Champagne?

Sustainable Wine’s Tobias Webb interviews Caroline Henry, author of “Terroir Champagne: The Luxury of Sustainable, Organic and Biodynamic Cuvees” for her views on how the region is progressing, and the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.

Caroline Henry

(This is quite an in-depth Q&A, but really worth reading, in our view)

Some choice excerpts:

  • “…global warming is actually benefiting Champagne at the moment. We get more sun hours and the fruit (which is cropped quite intensively) can actually ripen”
  • Chaptalization is more the rule than the exception in the region. The extensive use of herbicides seems to further deteriorate the acidity levels.”
  • Champagne has come a very long way regarding sustainability, since the beginning of the year 2000”
  • However, they still remain the region in France (and probably the world) with the highest dependence on herbicides and pesticides”.
  • It takes 1,2 kg of grapes to produce one bottle of champagne, and the average grape price hovers around 6.5-7 Euro a kg”
  • Sales figures also show that organic producers, and people who have long focused on sustainability do not suffer from decreased volumes sales”.
  • “…sustainability is here to stay in the wine world and its importance will only increase in years to come.”

(Rather than taking any of these out of context, please do read the whole Q&A below)

Hautvillers

Tobias Webb (TW): Tell us about the work you do, where you are based, and how you became interested in sustainability issues?

Caroline Henry (CH): I live in Hautvillers, a village in the heart of Champagne. The village is quite well known because it is the village of Dom Perignon (e.g. it has the DP abbey). I have lived here for the last eight years.

I originally came to champagne trying to understand why the Champenois did not talk about terroir (even though it is an important part of the blend) while the rest of the world was going terroir crazy. I found the answer to my question a few months into my stay here, when the hillsides turned completely orange with glyphosate in the spring.

I had a longstanding dislike for herbicides, as my dog (a puppy at the time) was poisoned by glyphosate in 2007 when she ate grass which had been treated. She nearly died at the time, and in the end, 12 years later she died of kidney problems caused by the poisoning. I also was already very interested in organic farming.

Being a long time vegetarian I very quickly became interested in the way my vegetables were farmed and I have been buying in organic stores and farmers markets for at least 20 years. I had pushed the winery I worked for in New Zealand to explore organic farming since we already were very sustainable with a big emphasis on biodiversity. So I guess my first interest in organic farming came at least 20 years ago, sustainable farming about 15 years ago.

I was particularly shocked how unsustainable Champagne was when I arrived (at the end of 2011) and it was obvious they could not talk about terroir if they put so much effort into killing the soil.

TW: What do the climate models tell us about how climate change is affecting champagne, and will do so in the future?

CH: I think global warming is benefiting Champagne at the moment. We get more sun hours and the fruit (which is cropped quite intensively) can actually ripen. CIVC data show that the sugar levels at harvest have returned to around 10% potential alcohol, the same as it was in the 1960’s, before ‘les 30 glorieuses’, which resulted in the yield doubling or tripling.

Warmer weather, and less rain, also helps with disease management. Diseases (especially powdery and downy mildew) have been a real bane in the region, and it does not look that climate change will make them go away. However, the CIVC hybrid projects hold a solution for this problem. The backside of the medal is that the varieties of today will be (partially) replaced by hybrids.

Some champenois are worried about the acidity levels, which were very high since the 70’s mainly because the grapes were not ripe. Chaptalization is more the rule than the exception in the region. The extensive use of herbicides seems to further deteriorate the acidity levels. The CIVC data shows that organic champagne has lower pH. and better acid levels.

However, this should be resolved by the CIVC’s commitment to zero herbicide usage in the region by 2025. The first year did not look very rosy, but over the winter the technical teams of the CIVC have done the rounds to help growers with the conversion. Spring will show us how successful they have been. So far Coronavirus confinement has had many growers reaching for the glyphosate again, earlier than normal. We need to wait and see what April brings, but at the moment it looks like not that much has changed since last year.

TW: What’s happening with sustainability in Champagne these days, we hear some major announcements have taken place in recent times?

CH: Champagne has come a very long way regarding sustainability, since the beginning of the year 2000 (after les 30 glorieuses). However, they remain the region in France (and probably the world) with the highest dependence on herbicides and pesticides. Still, one cannot convert Mars into a fertile landscape overnight, it will take time. Especially since the soils have been killed since at least the 1970’s.

To become more sustainable the CIVC (Also known as “Comité Champagne”, the CIVC is the trade association that represents the interests of independent Champagne producers and Champagne Houses) has worked on different plans. Soil management has only come in vogue in recent years, but they started by managing their carbon footprint, which they reduced significantly by reducing the weight of the champagne bottle, and they have come a very long way in waste management, recycling winery and vineyard wastage. They continue to work on this and hence also talk about this.

In 2015, the CIVC also launched its Viticulture Durable en Champagne (VDC), which comes with the certification loosely based on the level 3 National Haute Valeur Environnementale (HVE). They aim to have the whole region certified by 2030. (Which is actually a national requirement) HVE is weak on herbicide and pesticide management. The former is allowed up to 50% of the surface and the latter has very few if any restrictions. However, VDC promotes biodiversity, encouraging growers to plant hedges around their vineyards as well as including other sustainability rules.

Organic certification in the region remains the lowest in France, with less than 3% of the surface covered or in conversion today (compared to 18% in Alsace which is part of the same political region) However, the number of producers and the surfaces have increased significantly over the last decade and the ACB (Association des Champagnes Biologiques) estimates a further 30% growth in producers in the next 2 years. This would bring the total producers up to 280 at the end of 2021 (up from 204 in 2018). To put this in perspective, there are about 16,000 growers in the region, and around 5,000 champagne producers.

TW: Yet, not many champagne houses are vocal on sustainability with a few notable exceptions. What’s the situation at the moment in the region?

CH: This has been changing as well. All the big Houses are already VDC (see above) and they are promoting it. The locomotive of the region, LVHM, has long been pro sustainability and of you check their site, it is an active part of their different brant strategies. They are part of the lobby which would like sustainable equal organic in the eyes of the consumer, but personally I cannot see this happening. In France (as the world) organic products have become more in vogue, and with all the scandals people have become wary of what they consume.

A limitation for most of the big houses is that they purchase grapes. Therefore, they are depending on the growers to convert to sustainable growing. So far many have been paying a premium for VDC grapes. Though this could change in the future, by houses penalizing the growers whose grapes are not VDC.

Vincent Bliard, Hautvillers

TW: Will we see a common definition of sustainability soon? Is that needed?

CH: As explained here above, the CIVC is actively promoting its VDC, so in a way the region has ‘one’ definition of sustainable. It barely talks about organic or biodynamic growing and it would really like the organic growers to convert to VDC as well, though so far very few have gone down this path.

The INAO is looking into defining ‘natural wine’, a project long in the making, but with Champagne’s very elaborate winemaking process, it’s neither very much on the INOA radar or on the CIVC’s.

For the latter, the fact that Natural Wine will probably be defined in a similar way as Biodynamic, and therefore will have to be organic, makes it a lot less interesting seeing the very low organic certification numbers in the region.

Personally, I am not convinced that defining natural wine according to a Cahier des Charges will change much in the mind of consumers. Many people are very confused about biodynamic growing and very few know that the certification implies organic certification.

It is also partly because trade and journalists talk about ‘not certified’ organic/biodynamic, something that does not exist. Hence in short, I do not think that things will become clearer for the consumer in the long run, but hopefully I am wrong.

TW: It’s a tough climate to grow grapes successfully AND eliminate all chemicals. What are the barriers to doing so, and is there a common understanding of what ‘good’ and ‘bad’ inputs are for disease control

As mentioned before, global warming has benefited grape growing in the region. So theoretically less chemicals could be used. But it is really hard changing 50 odd years of extensive chemical usage. Also in Champagne the maximum yield is actually the minimum yield, and its generally around 10, 0000 kg/HA so quite high.

This does not stimulate growers to cut chemicals. But to treat vineyards in Champagne, one needs a certification, also required to procure the pesticides. The CIVC counts in EFT’s (number of times the vines were treated), which are going down. They are advising on this as well, however very little control or information is available on what is applied, even if there is a consensus that less is the way forward. Yet when there is disease pressure, people will treat extensively to try and protect their crops.

Nevertheless, the Zone de Non Traitance (ZNT), a very contested law preventing the use of pesticides within 20, 15, five meters of village/road/ etc, means that several cooperatives in Champagne decided to work together to treat these vineyards organically (Copper is allowed at the moment – even if copper is very contested especially by the anti-organic movement). The organic growers hope this will make people realize that it is possible to treat with fewer pesticides. We will know more next year and the years after.

Studies by the organic movement also show that yields are more depending of human and technical resources than on the amount copper/sulphur applied.

TW: Soil. The black box as some describe it. How much research is focused on soil health in the region, and how is this set to change?

CH: Many growers who have worked their soil are engaged in soil research with LAMS, SEMSES, or other specialized institutions. The organic association ACB has recently engaged in such a study which is ongoing. The CIVC has undertaken studies before, but they mainly focused on the presence of earthworms, and this study’s aim was to proof that VDC was better than organic. I got to see the parameters used and because the fertilizers were not controlled in thus study, personally I do not believe it holds much weight. But as it was the only official study, it is still often quoted. I believe that the results coming from individual producers (growers and houses) as well as from associations (like the ACB) and cooperatives will change the way the soil is looked at in the future, and I guess at that time more research will be focused on this.

TW: Consumers. Champagne is seen as a luxury good, but is available for some at low prices these days. What is your sense of how consumers are driving change in Champagne around sustainability?

CH: Sustainability is definitely driven by consumers, like it is in all sectors. It’s hard to deny climate change and bad agricultural practices, hence LVMH’s push for a sustainable label like the CIVC’s VDC. France remains Champagne’s largest market, and sales continue to decrease here year after year, which is at least partly driven by Champagne’s image as heavily reliant on pesticides and herbicides.

Sales figures also show that organic producers, and people who have long focused on sustainability do not suffer from decreased volumes sales, compared to the rest of the region which continues to suffer. This means producers have become more aware of sustainability issues.

Very cheap champagne sales have decreased in the last five years, and to be honest I would avoid a bottle of champagne at £10 or less. It takes 1,2 kg of grapes to produce one bottle of champagne, and the average grape price hovers around 6.5-7 Euro a kg. This means it is not viable to produce low end champagne, and definitely not sustainable champagne.

I think champagne follows the trend of other wines, where people concerned with what they eat and drink (e.g. the way the wine was produced) will pay more to consume sustainable and I think this trend will continue (just look at the success of WholeFoods in the US, farmers markets and organic stores in the UK and France).

Another reason why I believe consumers are interested in sustainable champagne and actively looking for information about it, is my book sales. I sold 2600 books without distribution and people continue to contact me either for my book or to get info on organic/biodynamic or sustainable champagne. I see the same in requests of magazines asking me to write on these topics (rather than me pitching it). I think sustainability is here to stay in the wine world and its importance will only increase in years to come.

Caroline Henry is a certified sommelier, and wine writer. As a wine journalist specialized in Champagne she is the winner of the 10th Terres et Vins de Champagne prize.

Her book “Terroir Champagne: The Luxury of Sustainable, Organic and Biodynamic Cuvees”, is the first book exclusively dedicated to the true environmentally friendly produced terroir wines of Champagne.

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