Thu, Aug 09, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Climate change in Champagne has wineries prepping

Growers have been turning to new blends, biodynamic viticulture, heat-friendly hybrids, carbon cutting and other eco-conceptions to save that world-famous fizz

By Elin McCoy  /  Bloomberg

In the cold, chalky cellars deep underground at boutique winery A.R. Lenoble, co-owner Antoine Malassagne shares his worries about the future of the world-famous fizz from Champagne, France. The region’s classic style depends on crisp, zingy acidity combined with edgy, fruity and salty mineral flavors that come from deep, chalky soil and, until now, a very cool climate.

Here is Malassagne’s question: How can the adored taste of champagne stay the same in the face of climate change?

So far, global warming has mostly put chilly Champagne in a climatic sweet spot, with average temperatures that ensure grapes ripen every year.

However, that is not the whole story, Malassagne said.

Buds appear earlier, so spring frosts are more destructive. Warmer nights push maturity, but also encourage new pests and diseases.

“Harvest is two weeks earlier than it was 20 years ago,” he said on a very hot morning last month at his winery in Damery, a 15-minute drive from Epernay, Champagne’s epicenter.

“It used to be mid-to-late September. Now, the harvest often starts in August, as it will this year, but maturity during hot days and nights results in lower and lower acidity in the grapes, which means less freshness in the wines,” he said.

It is also essential to Champagne’s taste: Acidity is what allows the wines to age.

In 2010, Malassagne started working on ways to make sure there was enough “zing” in his future bubbly.

Champagne’s basic technique of blending various varieties of grapes — chardonnay, pinot noir and sometimes meunier — vineyards and vintages is the way that winemakers compensated for poor years. For example, reserve wine from older vintages added depth, complexity and richness when grapes did not fully ripen.

Now, Malassagne is creating reserve wines to add “freshness,” too. He conserves them in magnums under natural cork to preserve brighter flavors. About 70,000 of these are stockpiled in the long, dimly lit cellar. His two lively, delicious new blends — Lenoble Intense “mag14” and Lenoble Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs Chouilly “mag14,” launched in May — are the first to incorporate these new reserves.

That is only one of the many ways in which Champagne growers are trying to maintain their renowned sparkling style.

Champagne Bruno Paillard is experimenting with covering the soil in vineyards with straw to prevent sunlight from destroying microbial life. Others are using winemaking techniques such as blocking malolactic fermentation — the second fermentation in the barrel that converts fresh-tasting malic acid to softer lactic acid — to bring greater perceived acidity to the wine.

Over the past two decades, Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon, the head winemaker at super-star winery Louis Roederer, has been systematically experimenting with everything from biodynamic viticulture to DNA analysis of yeast to gentler forms of pruning and reinventing winemaking techniques for chardonnay — all “to maintain what has made Champagne’s reputation.”

Roederer is the most innovative large producer in Champagne right now, and its superb wines are just getting better and better.

The non-vintage Brut Premier is widely acclaimed and the just-released, brilliant 2008 — from an old-style, cool vintage with a late harvest that continued into October last year — has a precision and purity that seem almost electric.

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