On a hot weekday in the middle of September, in a back room at Champagne Mailly—a cooperative dating back to the 1920s and deep in the heart of Champagne, France—local wine growers hash out a plan for the ceremonial start of harvest. They’re already as much as three or four weeks behind and will commence picking on September 24. But how do you address the problem when the culprit is global warming?
Normally the first picking of grapes to go into bottles of Champagne—a blend of Pinot Meunier, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir—occurs in late August or early September. With input from vignerons (growers) and the houses (wineries), the Comité Champagne sets the harvest date—which varies by region—each year. Fifty staff members handle the technical aspects of prepping for the harvest start date, procuring samples from vineyards throughout Reims and Epernay, and evaluating them in laboratories for their maturity. All of the picking is done by hand, showing a pure rejection for machinery out in the fields, and a hope that intuition can override speed. In 2001 Champagne launched an environmental intervention program and two years later debuted the first carbon footprint audit on behalf of a wine region. The goal is, by 2020, to reduce by 25 percent Champagne’s carbon footprint and, by 2050, to have reduced it by 75 percent. Since the plan was announced, there’s been a 15 percent reduction. One notable step is the creation of a glass bottle that is two ounces lighter than the traditional weight and less costly to ship. And then there’s the 90 percent of Champagne byproducts now being recovered or reused, for items such as beauty products.
“Before global warming, we used to say 100 days between flowering and harvest. Now we say around 95,” says Hervé Dantan, winemaker at Champagne Lanson.
Although it’s still several days before the start of harvest, you can already feel the tension, that “hurry up and wait” mentality, knowing that the harvest will take over everyone’s lives for nearly 20 hours a day. At Champagne Dumangin J. Fils, owner Gilles Dumangin, a fifth-generation winemaker who took over his father’s business 16 years ago at the age of 30, has it all mapped out. He points to two tables in a dark corner of the barrel room. “This is going to be my office. I’m going to work from there,” Dumangin says. Just a few feet away, in another room, the grapes will be pressed. Each press cycle takes 3.5 hours. “As soon as the first pint of grapes comes into the cellar, all you smell is grapes, and your brain goes into adrenaline mode.”
Between 80,000 and 100,000 bottles are produced in Champagne each year. All but 5 percent is either exported to the U.S. or kept in France. Few wineries use pesticides and they proudly proclaim their sustainable methods. In fact, at Champagne Mailly, all of the growers selling grapes to this house have Viticulture Durable en Champagne accreditation, a sustainable winegrowing certification. Twenty-five of the families have been working with Champagne Mailly since it started in the 1920s.
At Louis Roederer, winemaker Jean-Baptiste LéCaillon defers to the land when selecting the grapes to go into each vintage. “Our style is really linked to the soil more than the [winery],” he says. Much of its acreage is biodynamically farmed. In a few days, 600 pickers will launch a 10-day harvest. A stroll through the winery reveals that sample picking—to determine grape maturity—has already begun, with index cards propped on top of grape clusters, noting the grapes’ progress. Two staff oenologists work in the fields—not in a lab—and their distinct palates drive each Champagne vintage. “We are not a farm. We are here to grow grapes,” LeCaillon says. “It’s like an orchestra. I know exactly how each one of them tastes. It’s important to be a team to taste.”
LeCaillon, who is 58, also believes in training the next generation of winemakers and works with a 26-year-old winemaker at Louis Roederer. “We need to have different generations to translate the knowledge,” he says.
As in other Old World wine regions, the younger generation is poised to continue, but with new twists. After all, this is not like Napa or Mendoza where folks can come in, buy land (valued at around $1 million per hectare, or 2.47 acres), and sprout up a winery. There simply aren’t plots for sale in Champagne, with the land passing through generations. At Champagne Drappier, Michel Drappier’s daughter Charline, a recent college graduate and seventh-generation Champagne producer, has just returned from 18 months in New York City to the family’s winery and home tucked into a town of 147 people. Traveling across the U.S. to meet with distributors, she learned about the challenges of distribution. Currently the wine is poured at restaurants like Eleven Madison Park in New York City.
This year’s harvest, the family predicts, will be the smallest since 1956. The winery, established in the 16th century by monks, has a cellar that dates back to 1152. Michel Drappier is the sixth-generation winemaker. Doing his part to help the environment, 15 hectares (or 37 acres) are certified organic, and 45 percent of its energy comes from solar power. “The first juice will arrive Monday,” Michel announces with pride.
Following a quick drive up the hill in a pair of vintage cars—1921 and 1937 Citroens—a drive that offered a breathtaking view of the region, Michel says, “We think a wine is like a human being. It should have seasons.” Just before sunset, the sun is beating down on the grapes, painting a soft haze over the vineyard. Michel’s son, Hugo, expresses satisfaction in his decision to study winemaking in Beaune, which afforded another valuable perspective: He meets regularly with other younger-generation male winemakers in Champagne to discuss the future, while still holding onto the heritage.
Alice Paillard, the daughter of Bruno Paillard, guides a small group of people through the winery’s portfolio. Bruno, who has handed off most of the work at Champagne Bruno Paillard to his daughter, pops in to say hello. In a few days they, too, will start picking for the 2016 harvest. There is some concern about this vintage, but the decision is, as always, to leave it up to Mother Nature—and to employ sustainable growing methods free of chemicals.
“We had a very difficult spring. We had frost, we had rain … but we are very optimistic for the quality,” says Alice Paillard. “We look long-term. We think we have a responsibility for future generations. I think it shows in the wine. You are going to see that.”
As she pours flutes of the winery’s Champagne, she says, “Eighty percent of our energy, time, and investment is based on the ground.” For example, the fields are plowed by horses, not machines, and workers are assigned to specific plots, to become more intimately aware of seasonal shifts. There is also care taken toward reducing waste, such as wrapping bottles in orange compostable paper for shipping, which in the end contributes to less greenhouse gases.
Champagne J de Telmont—a family-owned winery established in 1912 and run by Bertrand Lhopital and his sister Pascale since 1997—is a firm follower of biodynamic principles. Pascale’s husband, Philippe, is the winemaker. The Cuvée Sans Soufre is its first wine made without sulfites. A portion of its vineyard is farmed biodynamically. “When you do biodynamic, you have to forget everything about soil and the vines to have another vision,” Lhopital says. “Biodynamic was invented in 1929. It’s not new—and it works.”