Quick Q&A on Sustainable wine with Gilles Descotes, Chef de Cave at Champagne Bollinger

By Agatha Pereira

My friend and colleague (in sustainable wine) Agatha Pereira was recently a guest of the Porto Climate Change Leadership conference. She did a few interviews for the blog whilst she was there, including this Q&A with Gilles Descoteschef de cave at Champagne Bollinger. It’s a brief Q&A, but for me, it shows how what you might call ‘mainstream’ brands are taking the sustainability agenda very seriously, and know how to talk about it, too. Here’s the brief Q&A:

AP: How did you start out in wine, and how did you end up at Bollinger?

GD: My grandfather was a winegrower in Oger (in Champagne)

I started very young to work in the vineyards during my holidays, but at that time I didn’t really think to make a job from that.

I did agronomic studies in Paris and decided to move to Montpellier to get specialised in vineyards and winemaking. I got there my diploma of oenologist and engineer in agronomy.

I decided then to be a flying winemaker and did some harvests in South Africa, California and Bordeaux.

I came back in Champagne in 1994, and the first job I found was vineyard manager in Vranken Pommery.

I moved to Bollinger in 2003 as vineyard manager, and after nearly 20 years in the vineyards, I was appointed cellar master of Bollinger in 2012.

AP: Everyone is talking about sustainability in wine these days, but definitions vary a lot. What’s yours?

GD: Sustainability is what is able to continue over a long period of time, so this is not only about environment.

AP: Can the wine industry afford sustainability? With so many vineyards not being profitable, what’s realistic to expect?

GD It’s not really something that you can afford or not. You have to move to sustainability. If you don’t, you will disappear, proving that you were not sustainable.

For me, vineyards that are not profitable will simply disappear.

For Champagne, until now, we don’t have these kinds of problems. Mostly because our business is based on sharing the value creation of Champagne between Houses and winegrowers (this is the economic side of being sustainable). And because of that winegrowers can move to sustainability with no economic risk.

For example, Bollinger is already paying a better price for grapes that get the certification “sustainable viticulture in Champagne”.

AP: Beyond the vineyard – whose responsibility is it to drive sustainability?

GD: Of course the shareholders, and then the CEO, have to give a strong impulse, showing that it’s an important matter. Then, it’s everyone’s responsibility, all the managers, all the workers of Bollinger, but also our agents, our customers.

The singularity of Bollinger is based on its five pillars: Vineyard, Pinot Noir, vinification in wood, reserve wine in magnums and ageing time.

AP: Some at the conference challenged the future of Pinot Noir – what are your views on that in Burgundy? How concerned are you with alcohol levels – when considering climate change?

GD:  I work in Champagne so I can give you my feelings about Champagne and about Bollinger (never less than 60% of Pinot Noir in a blend of Bollinger).

For the short term (and hopefully medium term), climate change is not a problem for Pinot Noir in Champagne. This variety is more sensitive to climate change than Chardonnay, but less than Meunier.

The alcohol levels are not a problem, and we have a lot of different clones or Selection Massale, a lot of rootstock that we can use to keep sugar not to high and acidity not too low.

We have also a lot of tools in the vineyards (work the soil, large vines, early picking) or in the cellar (yeast that produce less alcohol with the same amount of sugar for example) to adapt. The main issues are not adaptation but mitigation of climate change.


About the author

Agatha Pereira

Agatha Pereira is co-founder of Sustainable Wine and a corporate executive with 15 years management experience. For the past 12 years she has been working with HNW Venture Capitalists operating in 27 countries. During this time, Agatha has also taken a number of Winemaking, Viticulture and WSET courses and has developed an extensive network of wine experts, collectors, producers and distributors.