Vignes & Climat
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Wine industry: a sector evolving in the face of climate change?

Adapting champagne production practices to preserve quality

Clément Boulle, Executive director of Polytechnique Insights
On March 18th, 2021 |
3 mins reading time
5
Adapting champagne production practices to preserve quality
Marc Brévot
Marc Brévot
Director of R&D at MHCS, the Champagne branch of the LVMH group
Vincent Malherbe
Vincent Malherbe
Head of Vineyard and Supply at LVMH
Key takeaways
  • LVMH and their subsidiary Moët & Chandon are also noticing the effects of climate change on the structure of their champagnes, whose alcohol content is also increasing.
  • To counteract this trend, they have set up research units to conduct experiments to adapt the production of their champagnes (vacuum cooling boxes, image analysis by artificial intelligence to characterise the state of the grapes, etc.).
  • For them, the specifications of the INAO [the regulatory body for protected geographical indications] are too strict and should be made more flexible to allow winegrowers to conduct experiments on their vines without risking downgrading.

How is glob­al warm­ing affect­ing Cham­pagne vineyards? 

Vin­cent Mal­herbe. Con­di­tions increas­ing­ly resem­ble those of south­ern regions, which has led us to begin har­vest in August three times over the past ten years. Springs used to be cold and humid but they are now hot­ter and dri­er. Before, vines reached matu­ri­ty at the end of Sep­tem­ber, or even the begin­ning of Octo­ber, when it was approx­i­mate­ly 4°C in the morn­ing and 14°C in the after­noon. Now, tem­per­a­tures can reach 25°C dur­ing the har­vest season.

How does this impact quality?

VM. Grape matu­ri­ty is bet­ter so for now it is ben­e­fi­cial, but this could evolve if the cli­mate con­tin­ues to change. In the past, we har­vest­ed in Octo­ber to reach the nec­es­sary ripeness of the grapes and we could expe­ri­ence two prob­lems: an excess of acid­i­ty and a risk of dis­eases relat­ed to humid­i­ty. Nowa­days, we are faced with new issues: the alco­hol lev­el has increased while the acid­i­ty lev­el decreased. We must remain vig­i­lant because it is a key ele­ment for both the con­tent and age­ing of cham­pagnes. Based on rolling aver­age over four years, the degree of alco­hol has increased from 9.6°C in 2007 to 10.1°C in 2020. In the 1980s, we often har­vest­ed when tem­per­a­tures ranged from 7.5°C to 8°C.

Marc Brévot. Cli­mate change has an addi­tion­al impact on the entire ecosys­tem sur­round­ing vine­yards. For exam­ple, we are see­ing mod­i­fi­ca­tions in the micro­bio­ta of grapes which can bring out unknown aro­mas. Some years, we also observe a desyn­chro­ni­sa­tion of verai­son (the change in colour of grapes), due to an accu­mu­la­tion of sug­ar before the grapes reach phe­no­lic and aro­mat­ic matu­ri­ty. Also, by com­par­ing com­po­si­tion­al analy­ses of cur­rent grape musts with those of the 80s from the same land plots, we find that the nitro­gen con­tent has changed, too; it has decreased over time and as such the amino acid com­po­si­tion is less appro­pri­ate for vini­fi­ca­tion. That means we have to be more pre­cise in the way we devel­op our wines to main­tain the desired sen­so­ry characteristics. 

Sam­ples tak­en from grapes to test micro­bio­ta ©R&D MHCS

To that end, we devel­oped a method for mon­i­tor­ing fer­men­ta­tion in real-time at our R&D unit, which we have now imple­ment­ed at our wine­mak­ing site of Moët & Chan­don de Mon­taigu. We are also test­ing new tech­nolo­gies for the future. We test­ed cool­ing box­es under vac­u­um to quick­ly and effi­cient­ly get the ide­al tem­per­a­tures of grapes for vini­fi­ca­tion. We tried image analy­sis tech­niques using arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence to char­ac­terise the stage of grape matu­ri­ty, in the vine­yard or after their har­vest, to obtain raw mate­r­i­al that con­forms with our qual­i­ty stan­dards. We are also con­duct­ing research to bet­ter under­stand the micro­bio­ta and its influ­ence on the qual­i­ty of our prod­ucts, include new ear­ly indi­ca­tors of sen­si­tiv­i­ty to dis­eases to assist busi­ness users in their deci­sion-mak­ing (ex: indi­ca­tors of fragili­ty of grape skin), or iden­ti­fy future vari­eties of vines with great poten­tial in the new cli­mate conditions.

What can be done to counter the effects of cli­mate change?

VM. Vine­yard prac­tis­es are chang­ing, trim­ming espe­cial­ly. We use root­stocks from oth­er regions, for exam­ple. But the spec­i­fi­ca­tions of the INAO [the French reg­u­la­to­ry body for pro­tect­ed geo­graph­i­cal indi­ca­tions], are very strict. And, yet we can­not sta­bilise our recipes while our envi­ron­ment is chang­ing. So, we are demand­ing a right to exper­i­ment both from an eco­log­i­cal and agro­nom­i­cal point of view with­out the risk down­grad­ing our prod­ucts. The Ger­man, Swiss and Ital­ian qual­i­ty stan­dards are more flex­i­ble than the French. 

Present-day tra­di­tions are not sus­tain­able in the long term, and it would be unwise to let them reach break­ing point. We must progress in order to main­tain style and the qual­i­ty of our wines. Half a cen­tu­ry ago, Chardon­nay did not exist in the Cham­pagne region. Our ances­tors were able to change. In the future, we will need grape vari­eties with a lat­er growth cycle, because there is a cor­re­la­tion between the matu­ri­ty and devel­op­ment of the fruit.

MB. There is con­sid­er­able pres­sure to devel­op agri­cul­tur­al sus­tain­abil­i­ty on one hand, and the oblig­a­tion to adapt to the chang­ing cli­mate on the oth­er hand. Con­tin­u­ous opti­mi­sa­tion is an out­dat­ed post-war agri­cul­tur­al mod­el. We must devel­op sys­temic approach­es, not ana­lyt­ic ones. In this regard, agroe­col­o­gy is a very excit­ing lead. It pilots a com­plex ecosys­tem in which the vine is not iso­lat­ed any­more, but ful­ly inte­grat­ed in the sur­round­ing envi­ron­ment and bio­di­ver­si­ty, and adapt­ed to the local climate.

What does the future hold for the Cham­pagne vine­yards? Are you inter­est­ed by new wine-grow­ing regions like those in the South of England?

VM. Bear­ing in mind what we just dis­cussed, vine­yards in the Cham­pagne region have a bright and sun­ny future ahead of them – pro­vid­ed that we are giv­en the means to rea­son­ably improve our cul­ti­va­tion tech­niques. The solu­tion lies in inno­vat­ing in accor­dance with our tra­di­tions. We have much to do on the 1,200 acres in Cham­pagne. An expan­sion in the South of Eng­land is not in our agen­da, even if we close­ly fol­low the evo­lu­tion of wine-mak­ing prac­tices and tech­niques in the UK.