Creativity and innovation at the core of Champagnes in response to climate change

Everyone knows that there is something worth celebrating when a bottle of champagne is brought to the table. No alcohol is as synonymous with celebration as Champagne. However, today Vignerons making champagne are faced with decidedly less celebratory circumstances – climate change.

In the last 30 years, thanks to climbing temperatures, Champagne has gone from a very cool region to a regional temperature that echoes that of Bordeaux in the past. Oenologist and cellar master of the champagne house Ruinart, Frédéric Panïotis, said that due to warmer temperatures, the annual harvest is taking place three weeks earlier than it used to. He went on to explain that “the real concern is the decrease in the average ten-year period between full flower and harvest, an interval which has evolved from an average of ninety-five days in the 1990s-2000s to eighty-seven days recently. This changes the balance of the wines.” Panïotis went on to explain that in addition to the change in balance, the grape juice has gained 1 degree in alcohol and that the acidity is down.

Depending on personal preferences, for some champagne drinkers, it may seem like good news. However, the changes raise a real problem that winemakers are now facing, which is how to maintain the style and the wines they are known for while the climate conditions are evidently changing.  Most winemakers have accepted that as the environment changes wine will follow suit and be forced to evolve as well – after all, what is wine but an expression of the terroir in which it grows? Thus, innovation and creativity must be at the core of the coming cuvées.

Necessity breeds creativity

In response to changing conditions, winemakers are forced to rethink strategies and techniques which have existed for centuries while at the same time adopting ambitious climate goals to slow down climate change. Champagne was the first wine-growing region in the world to put forth an ambitious plan to cut carbon emissions. Several initiatives have proven to be particularly effective: reducing bottle weight, recycling waste products, and converting biomass. The simple fact of streamlining champagne bottles, boxes, and packaging has had a significant impact. From 2011 onward, the bottle weight was reduced by 7% to 835g, something which has contributed to an annual CO2 reduction of 8000 tonnes. The region is also taking a closer look at supplies and is aiming to replace fossil fuel-based supplies with supplies that are bio-sourced.

In something so steeped in history as Champagne, certain practices must be respected for the sparkling wine to be considered Champagne under the rules of the appellation, regardless of climate change. To meet the standards set forth by the appellation, specific vineyard practices, sourcing of grapes exclusively from within the designated “Champagne” region as well as specific grape-pressing methods and a secondary fermentation process that causes and maintains the carbonation. Thus, what remains is the core sequence of the “methode champenoise” (champagne method). Those who learned that wine is made through the fermentation process of the sugars within the grapes which turn into alcohol might be surprised to learn that in the methode champenoise additional sugar is added during the vinification process, especially surprising when one considers that most of the champagne consumed today is Brut or Extra-Brut which little sweetness more axed toward dryness. Yet, sugar, often beetroot or cane sugar, is added by way of the liqueur de tirage is a yeast, wine, and sugar solution added to the not-yet sparkling base wine, the solution helps to create the secondary fermentation in the bottle. This secondary fermentation is what determines the dryness of the wine as well as the atmospheric pressure in the bottle. A secondary solution is added just after the disgorgement (the process of expelling the loose sentiment of dead yeast cells which collect in the neck of the bottle). The liqueur d’expedition is made of a mix of sugar and wine helps to balance the acidity and add the correct amount of sweetness.

Sustainability in wine

One of the things that makes Champagne interesting is the boundaries within which one is required to innovate, especially in terms of sustainability. Some factors and methods are fixed while others such as logistics are more easily malleable to sustainable practices. Far fewer innovations, however, are occurring in the actual process of the method champenoise, the secondary ingredients (beyond the grapes) have stayed more or less stagnant. Some are braving this unexplored frontier with not only excellent results but also creative solutions. An example of what can be done when innovative technologies are adapted to nature based solutions is Naturalia Ingredients, the world’s only crystal grape sugar producer. Launched in 2009, part of the Gibbi group run by Gaetano Buglisi, the company has a singular USP, a new product, based on the extraction, in crystalline form, of natural fruit sugars. “We produce and distribute a natural, unique and innovative product with certified quality” said Buglisi. Naturalia Ingredients proves to be a strong case study of what can be done in the realm of sustainability in the wine sector.

With a product like that of Naturalia Ingredients, especially in Europe, the tenants of sustainability are respected. Natural resources are used in a thoughtful manner and are extracted with the most innovative methods, CO2 emissions are saved by not using cane sugar which is mainly produced is far away countries like Brazil, India and Thailand. The company aims to passionately pursue quality & innovation while respecting environment. Furthermore, as consumers become more and more informed about their consumption and exacting in their standards, the concept of a sparkling wine (champagne or otherwise) which is made of 100% grapes is bound to please consumers. With the practice of recycling biomass, Champagne has already started to adopt sustainable practices. Naturalia Ingredients is simply an example of how much farther it can be taken.

Ultimately, the wine sector, like all agricultural sectors is facing a climate reckoning of monumental proportions. Yet, it will have the chance not only to face its challenges but also innovate and let this new generation of winemaking be a generation where the terroir taste like creativity and bold ideas. Should it manage to succeed, that just might be something worth popping a bottle of champagne for.

Image credit: Jeremy Finke/Flickr

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