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Making Green Champagne

DIZY, France — This summer’s erratic weather and frequent storms have illustrated the difficulties that winegrowers often face in the Champagne region. Severe hailstorms in May took their toll on vineyards in the Marne Valley, while heavy floods wreaked havoc in July. The past few months have been warm, yet thunderstorms have constantly punctuated the periods of sunshine, keeping humidity high and creating problems with mildew in many areas.

Champagne’s location at the 49th parallel historically has been considered as the northernmost limit of viable winegrowing in this part of France. Champagne is significantly more northerly than the Loire Valley or Burgundy, and in comparison with North America, Epernay lies farther north than Québec. While Champagne’s top winegrowers are no less dedicated to high-quality viticulture than their counterparts elsewhere in the world, the region presents notable challenges in the vineyards. Its cool climate and relatively modest levels of sunshine create favorable conditions for producing wines of low alcohol and high acidity, two requisite criteria for making top-quality sparkling wine, but the cool and often wet weather can also contribute to widespread malady in the vines, particularly downy mildew.

As in other winegrowing regions, interest in a more sustainable viticulture has been growing steadily in Champagne, yet the region’s marginal climate has caused many growers to question whether it’s possible to use methods identical to those in warmer, drier areas. Many argue that these methods should be adapted to fit the specific conditions of the Champagne region, and because of this, growers have often been reluctant to pursue organic or biodynamic certification.

Nevertheless, a growing number of winegrowers is choosing to farm strictly organically or biodynamically, and their success has had a positive effect on the region. “At the moment, there is a group of about 25 organic and biodynamic growers in Champagne,” says Daniel Lorson, communications director of the Comité interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne, or CIVC, Champagne’s governing body. “It isn’t much, but their influence is immense. Many others try to adopt at least certain techniques and methods that are used by these growers. Anytime organic methods are possible, more and more growers now use them.”

Yet even those who do practice strictly organic viticulture in Champagne acknowledge the difficulties of doing so and admit that the consequences can sometimes be severe. “I think it’s the most difficult region for organic viticulture,” says winegrower Pascal Doquet, whose vineyards are currently under conversion to organic certification. “One bad storm can have a dramatic impact on your harvest.” Doquet’s vines are primarily in the southern portion of the Côte des Blancs, which he says this year has not been affected by mildew as much as some other areas of Champagne have been.  In 2008, however, his harvest was markedly reduced because of problems with mildew. “Last year we averaged only about 9,500 kilograms per hectare,” he says, “while others were averaging 15,000.”

Comparatively speaking, other growers have experienced even more difficulties. Beginning in 1996, Emmanuel Fourny of Veuve Fourny & Fils attempted to convert his family’s estate to organic and biodynamic viticulture. In the wet summer of 1997, however, he lost more than 50 percent of his crop to mildew. “We were committed to organics,” says Fourny, “and we used only Bordeaux mixture [copper sulfate and lime]. It wasn’t enough.” After the 1998 vintage, the estate decided that it could no longer afford to pursue a strictly organic regime, although Fourny continues to use many organic practices today.

Fourny, like many other growers in Champagne, has opted for a modified set of viticultural practices known as lutte raisonnée, which can be loosely translated as a reasoned or reasonable approach, seeking a viticultural solution that’s sustainable in both an environmental and economical sense. At its best, lutte raisonnée intends to work as organically as possible in the vineyards, choosing natural alternatives to pesticides and embracing organic methods such as the planting of cover crops, while reserving the right to use a minimum amount of synthetic treatments when environmental conditions threaten to damage or destroy the harvest.

The CIVC has strongly embraced lutte raisonnée and is encouraging growers who are more accustomed to conventional viticulture to adopt the practice. “In such a cool region we do not expect everybody to go organic—this is impossible,” Lorson says. “But what we talk about is sustainable viticulture, an environmentally conscious compromise, using chemicals only when absolutely necessary.”

Advocates of lutte raisonnée see it as an adaptive approach that takes into account the empirical realities of the environment around them, while its detractors deride it as a half-hearted compromise that allows unscrupulous growers to falsely claim organic or semi-organic practice. In some sense, they’re both right: the main problem with lutte raisonnée is that it’s only a descriptive concept, not a regulated or strictly defined set of rules. Because of this, each grower’s idea of what constitutes acceptable practices in the vineyard is unique. “Lutte raisonnée can really mean anything,” points out winegrower Aurélien Laherte of Laherte Frères. “Everybody thinks they’re reasonable.”

One solution to this is certification outside of strictly organic or biodynamic programs. Laurent Champs, proprietor of the Vilmart & Cie. estate, is a member of a group called Ampelos, which offers certification under a system that Champs describes as lutte intégrée raisonée contrôlée. It’s the contrôlée, or regulated, aspect of this system that is most significant: The group operates according to a clear set of rules and is monitored by inspectors from the organization. In nearly all respects, their practices follow along the lines of those certified as organic, such as eschewing the use of herbicides, employing pheromones for the sexual confusion of insects rather than using pesticides and fertilizing exclusively with organic compost. It’s particularly in addressing the problem of mildew that they diverge, with Ampelos condoning the use of specified synthetic treatments in regulated and limited quantities.

So far, few Champagne winegrowers are committed to a certified program such as Ampelos. But the region is taking steps toward becoming more environmentally friendly. Virtually all of the leading growers cite significant improvements in viticulture over the past decade, and the CIVC has encouraged those who might not have taken the initiative to upgrade their viticulture on their own. In 2001, the CIVC published a guide called Référentiel Technique that it sent to 15,000 growers across the region, outlining a program of viticulture raisonnée and showing them how to work with new, more eco-friendly viticultural methods. Since 2006, every grower in Champagne has been required to plant a cover crop in at least one parcel, and the CIVC has worked with growers to reduce the use of herbicides, claiming a 40 percent reduction region-wide in the use of fungicides, pesticides and herbicides since 2001. “There are still improvements to be made, but in the past 15 years, more progress has been made than in the last two or three generations,” Lorson says. “We are progressing at a very rapid pace right now, even if there is still more work to do. I am very confident that we are now on the right track.”

At the same time, Lorson doesn’t believe that further regulation is necessarily the answer. “Sustainable viticulture in Champagne is very much a matter of education,” he says. “We prefer to educate the growers rather than make new rules. We try to speak to the conscience of the growers, telling them that you have to act with the future in mind.”

Photo: Pascal Doquet in his vineyards in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger. Credit: Peter Liem