The battle to reinvent French fizz in face of climate change

France's Champagne country has little to celebrate as global warming threatens to wreak havoc on production, forcing winegrowers to take a sober look at their future.

The battle to reinvent French fizz in face of climate change
Photo: AFP

“We are taking a very long-term view,” says Thibaut Le Mailloux of the Champagne Committee, a trade association of independent winegrowers and merchants.

Climate change has already had an effect on the champagne production cycle.

The past 20 years has seen the harvest brought forward by about two weeks; grapes are bigger and the alcohol content has risen by around one degree.

For the time being these factors help production, but they could spell disaster if, as experts predict, average global temperatures rise by up to five degrees Celsius between now and the end of the century.

“We really must start researching now as in 25 years it will be too late,” Le Mailloux says.

The Champagne Committee is looking to develop new, more resistant grape varieties while retaining all the properties of the “King of Wines”.

Joining forces with the National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA) and a winegrowers institute in the southern region of Montpellier, they have embarked on a 15-year programme to create grape varieties that will beat climate change.

The challenge is to cross grape varieties that are allowed for the production of champagne — black Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and white Chardonnay — with varieties that are naturally resistant to certain diseases such as downy or powdery mildew.

They are also looking for genes favouring late maturation, which provides natural resistance, the Champagne Committee says.

Environmental change can not only hurt harvests and degrade quality, it can also create microclimates that encourage grapevine diseases.

On the plus side, rising temperatures can lead to lower acidity levels.

In addition, they lessen the risk of frost damage. Champagne is France's most northerly wine-producing area, with warm temperatures not guaranteed even in summer.

Hybrid supergrapes

Hybrid grapes are not new to Champagne — or for that matter most of France's winegrowing regions — which used hybridisation as well as grafting to create varieties resistant to the phylloxera aphid that wiped out vast swathes of the country's viticulture in the second half of the 19th century.

“We are crossing highly resistant super-genitors with our varieties,” says Arnaud Descotes, deputy technical and environmental director for the Champagne Committee.

“We start out with a cluster of grapes just starting to flower which we fertilise with pollen from the variety that interests us. The first
cross-breeding took place in 2015, the second in June 2016,” Descotes says.

“This is nothing to do with genetically modified crops, but hybrids obtained through technology,” he is quick to add.

The hybrid seeds — 4,000 of them — will be ready in six years to be planted in experimental plots across Champagne.

The researchers hope to complete their analyses and tastings of the resulting wine by 2030, when they will be able to present the new varieties to the appellation authorities.

Throughout the programme, “maintaining the champagne style is a central goal,” Le Mailloux says. “We are keeping up our tradition of innovation — but champagne will always be champagne.”

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French Champagne makers threaten boycott of Russia over ‘sparkling wine’ label

Russian elites could soon find themselves without their favourite French bubbles if Moet Hennessy makes good on a threat to halt champagne supplies following a new law signed by President Vladimir Putin.

French Champagne makers threaten boycott of Russia over 'sparkling wine' label
Russian lawmakers adopted legislation saying the word "champagne" can only be applied to wine produced in Russia. Photo: Alexander NEMENOV / AFP.

Moet Hennessy’s Russia office warned local partners it was suspending supplies after Russian lawmakers adopted legislation stipulating that the word “champagne” can only be applied to wine produced in Russia, while the world-famous tipple from France’s Champagne region should be called “sparkling wine”.

Leonid Rafailov, general director of AST, a top liquor distributor which works with a number of brands including Moet Hennessy, said on Saturday his firm had received a letter from the French company notifying it of the suspension.

“I confirm that such a letter exists, and it is justified,” Rafailov told AFP.

He said that in accordance with the legislation – signed off on by Putin on Friday – the company would have to undergo new registration procedures, among other requirements.

Sebastien Vilmot, Moet Hennessy managing director in Russia, declined to speak to AFP.

But in a statement released through Rafailov, Vilmot called the suspension a “temporary” measure before a solution could be found.

Moet Hennessy is part of French luxury goods group LVMH and known for such brands as Moet & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot and Dom Perignon.

The French are fiercely protective of the term “champagne”, and it can only be made in the French region of the same name.

A copy of Moet Hennessy’s letter was first published on social media on Friday by a representative of a Moscow-based liquor importer and distributor.

Drinks market expert Vadim Drobiz suggested the legislation was open to interpretation but added that Moet Hennessy’s share of the Russian market was relatively small and well-heeled clients could find a replacement.

“If there is no Moet, there won’t be a state coup and Russian elites will not commit suicide,” Drobiz quipped.

But wine consultant Anna Chernyshova questioned the purpose of the amendments. “My phone has been ringing off the hook,” she said. “Me and my clients are thinking what to do next.”

Chernyshova, who helps people build wine collections, said she was not sure why the Russian parliament had passed such a law. “How will they walk back on it?” she told AFP. “So many officials love this champagne.”

Social media was abuzz with jokes, with wits making fun of the latest piece of Russian legislation. “Now it’s necessary to ban Scots and Americans from using the word “whisky”, joked restaurateur Sergei Mironov.

Popular singer Vasya Oblomov said Russian lawmakers could now adopt similar legislation regulating the use of the name “Mercedes” and even place names.

“I thought it was a joke,” wrote Putin’s self-exiled critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky. “I was wrong.”