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Low-carbon bubbly: Champagne industry adapts to climate change

BusinessGreen uncorks the esteemed French wine region's attempts to protect its interests in the face of the changing climate

Green businesses with something to celebrate could do worse than pop open the champagne.

The small but globally-renowned wine-growing region has been plugging away quietly at its environmental and sustainability practices now for nearly two decades, with significant success. The industry is on track to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by a quarter by 2020, against 2003 levels, and ambitious plans are under way to deliver a 75 percent cut by 2050.

But anyone seeking to label the region's environmental efforts as the work of "champagne environmentalists" should think again, because for champagne's winemakers sustainability is not some marketing spin, but a matter of stark necessity.

Across the region climate change is not some distant threat, but an ever-present reality to which they've already had to adapt. After all, the smallest changes in soil, sun, harvest and terroir can threaten a whole year's harvest, so the future of an industry worth $5.2 billion a year depends on adapting to a changing climate.

Established under French law in 1941 to protect the region's interests under Nazi rule, the Comité Champagne trade body represents all champagne growers and producers, and as such plays a significant role in driving the green agenda forward across the sector. According to its communications director Thibaut Le Mailloux, it is through the Comité that winegrowers and champagne houses have built their understanding of climate change and developed ambitious measures for tackling it.

"Climate skeptics are scarce in the region, because 15 years ago we didn't have grapes ripe enough to produce very aromatic champagne, and nowadays sometimes we are able to peak at 11.5 degrees of potential alcohol, so the level of sugar is quite high," Le Mailloux told BusinessGreen. "And champagne is not as green in color as it used to be 15 years ago."

Indeed, climate already notably has changed the Champagne region's nearly 109,000 acres of vineyards. The climate in Northern France does not lend itself easily to grape growing to start with, but the region's average harvest date is now two weeks earlier in the year than it was two decades ago.

That means the vines bud earlier in the year, which leaves the grapes more vulnerable to spring frosts which can kill off the fruit. Meanwhile, increasingly volatile weather patterns mean cold snaps and instances of frost are also becoming more frequent and less predictable.

Pesticide use in Champagne has been cut by 50 percent, while today half of all products used in the region are approved for organic use.

These changes are having a direct impact on the grapes, which ripen quicker in the increasingly warm temperatures, leading to higher levels of sugar and lower levels of acidity. Although swifter ripening has in some ways made life a little easier for growers, the challenge for the Comité Champagne is to try to maintain grape sugar and acidity at levels that are traditional to champagne as the climate changes.

"The key objective is to keep champagne as it is in the long run, despite climate change," said Le Mailloux.

For that reason, there are strict green regulations for the French wine industry and 2015 saw the French Ministry of Agriculture approve a new sustainable vine growing certification program called Viticulture Durable en Champagne. The Comité helped create this rigorous program while also producing an annual best practice guide for sustainable wine growing that is distributed to all growers and producers — although the trade body insists it seeks to influence, rather than force, its members into action.

"The strength that we have is that 100 percent of the region is behind one name, and 100 percent of the region is inside the same organization, so we are able to have a truly collective organization, which is a key point of interest for other industries," explained Le Mailloux. "We believe we will get the best results if we give the means to everybody, but we don't say that the certification is a 'must.' We say the 'must' is to be more responsible and to make efforts to be more responsible everywhere and every day, that way we obtain results."

With the Comité encompassing 15,800 growers and 300 champagne houses, Le Mailloux admitsted a few sustainability laggards remain in the industry, but he is confident all eventually will take on the eco-agenda in time.

"When you have 280,000 plots, the more chances you have to find someone who is not following the right way," he said. "But by surrounding the people who are followers with people leading their own transformation, you end up getting results."

The results have been positive. Soon after first assessing the carbon footprint of the industry in 2003, the Comité launched its Champagne Carbon Plan, covering agriculture, transport, manufacturing and buildings. And, having cut emissions from the sector by 15 percent between 2003 and 2010, the Comité is targeting a total 25 percent reduction by 2020, rising to 75 percent by 2050.

The region has in the meantime already achieved its target of recycling 100 percent of the water it uses, while it also recycles 90 percent of its manufacturing waste.

But with the export market making up well over half the sector's value, and more than 300 million bottles shipped every year, clearly transport is a significant portion of champagne's carbon footprint and an area in which there is much more work to be done. Yet the industry has made some strides in recent years, having led efforts to "lightweight" its 90-percent recycled glass bottles.

The innovation, which covers 268 million bottles a year, has helped reduce the carbon footprint of each bottle by 15 percent between 2003 and 2013 — equating to an annual reduction of 8,000 tonnes of CO2 per year, or taking 4,000 vehicles off the roads.

And while improving ecologically friendly farming practices amid threats from mildew and disease is an ongoing challenge, the industry has invested significantly in research and development in crop protection over the past 15 years. As a result, pesticide use in Champagne has been cut by 50 percent, while today half of all products used in the region are approved for organic use.

Not that pesticide use can realistically be cut altogether, said Mailloux. "Some people have tried [not using any pesticides, organic or otherwise], and we are still looking forward to drinking those wines because there weren't any grapes left at the end of the season," he reflects.

The industry therefore also has concentrated on developing more naturally disease-resistant vines, as well as a technique known as "sexual confusion," which — not quite as it might sound — is a natural alternative to synthetic fertilizers that, for example, involves using insect pheromones to deter caterpillars from laying their eggs inside grapes.

We are less afraid of our champagne production than we are about mankind.

In the long run, Le Mailloux is certain consumers will continue to demand more ethical and environmental responsibility from the products they buy, but he said the champagne industry didn't embark on its environmental agenda to boost sales, despite requiring "huge investment."

"We did it for an ethics reasons," he said. "So it is not a business benefit yet, but it useful to help explain that champagne is not only an industry — we are not just producing and selling — we are precious about the patrimony that we have. The fact that champagne cellars and slopes are on the world heritage list now is an additional responsibility. There is a desire to pass this patrimony to the next generation."

Wine already has changed over the past few decades and the next generation is likely to see a markedly different wine growing climate to the one enjoyed by their parents. But posit the theory that such changes could create — and perhaps already are creating — soil and climate capable of producing sparkling wine to the north of France that could be just as revered as that made in Champagne, and expect to be given short shrift by the French.

"You may plant chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier anywhere in the world," retorted Le Mailloux. "You may even plant them on a chalky or limestone soil. You may plant them in a climate that is not too far away from the climate of Champagne. But it will never be champagne. By definition, and also because it is an insult to the concept of terroir to say, 'Oh, my terroir is just like that one across the sea'. It doesn't make sense at all. It is just a marketing trick to make people think these wines are as prestigious as champagne, and climate change will not change that."

Le Mailloux certainly takes Champagne's heritage seriously, for him there is one thing even more important than wine.

"Champagne is not under threat," he said. "We believe we are threatened by climate change like the whole planet is. But if we go beyond a 2.5C temperature increase, we are less afraid of our champagne production than we are about mankind and some countries disappearing underwater or things like that. That is much more serious than wine."

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