Going from vine to champagne flute requires many years and many hands.
As you sip your favourite bubbles from the world’s most famous wine region, its journey is filled
with history, tradition and incredible skill.
Yet, with sustainability a hot topic on today’s agenda, do you know how
natural those bubbles really are?
Future proofing the wines of Champagne, the trade organisation, Comité Champagne has levied a goal of reducing the region’s carbon footprint by 75% before 2050. No mean feat with 16,000 growers, 130 co-operatives and 400 Champagne Houses to bring under one sustainable umbrella, not to mention the difficulty of growing sustainably in a marginal climate, where lower yields can be a consequence. One shared flag the producers can all follow is their passion to protect the heritage and legacy of their famous region.
A future in the balance
Over the past few decades, climate change — both in the form of rising temperatures and extreme weather — has impacted harvests across the region. Champagne’s backbone of high acidity and lower alcohol levels are being threatened by warmer, drier growing seasons. There has also been an increase in irregular weather, from hail and drought, to too much rain and wildfires.
The Champagne grape trio of Pinot Noir, Meunier and Chardonnay thrive in cool climates, and we like the results, with their unique just-ripe fruit flavour profile balancing refreshing acidity with sugar and alcohol.
Warming climates mean higher sugar levels, higher alcohol and lower acidity in grapes, and culminate in fruit flavours that punch above what customers have grown to love and expect in a premium champagne.
Sustainability is not new to this region. It may be one of the most traditional wine regions, however Champagne was the first in France to undertake its own carbon footprint assessment, in 2003. Today the region is experimenting with new grape varieties, new clones and rootstocks; there is increased biodiversity in the vineyards; and considering 57% of the over 300 million bottles per year fly off to other countries, the biggest carbon footprint comes from packaging, transport and travel.
On the road to sustainability, grape growers and wine producers in Champagne can choose how they wish to be assessed. Embracing an eco-attitude has its downsides however, organic farming means a reduction of up to 30% of a crop – a difficult pill to swallow for producers, many of whom are small and reliant on consistent yields.
From the several certifications, two regularly come up in conversations – the HVE and VDC.
HVE (Haute Valeur Environnementale)
A national classification system – this voluntary programme was developed by the national French Ministry of Agriculture. Favoured today by a small group of wineries in Champagne (around 12% to date), the focus of the HVE is on reducing carbon footprint and growing grapes sustainably through increased biodiversity, less use of pesticides and fungicides and improving water management.
Once a producer has achieved certification, they can label their bottles with ‘HVE’.
VDC (Viticulture Durable en Champagne)
Bespoke to the region of Champagne, this programme was created by the Comité Champagne. Over 90 standards address various criteria ranging from the preservation of terroir and biodiversity; managing water and waste; to tackling challenges posed by energy issues and the climate.
VDC certification can take up to three years, audited independently every 18 months. The Comité Champagne’s target is for 100% of producers to be certified by 2030. Around 43% of Champagne’s vineyards have been certified ‘VDC’ to date. Initiatives include planting of natural habitats, healthier soils, reduced use of insecticides, recycling of glass and corks and more, leading to a carbon footprint reduction of 20% per bottle since 2000.
The future is sparkling
Here we examine five trailblazing producers’ approach to sustainability and find there is a unison of voices and positive outlook for the future. Each winery can be visited, see their respective websites for details.
Champagne Mailly Grand Cru
Entering the impressive tasting room at Mailly, the pride and love that the families have of this esteemed Grand Cru co-operative in Montagne de Reims is instantly recognisable. With a history filled with passion and sheer grit, from 1929 to 1961, the huge wine cellar was dug out by the very families that produce the grapes in the surrounding 70 hectares.
Today there are more than 25 third and fourth generation families producing over 500,000 bottles of 11 different wines each year. Underneath the winery, the dark, damp, cool wine cellars house a further two million bottles.
The wine here is renowned for its freshness, no surprise that some of the vines are grown unusually on cooler north and west-facing slopes, future proofing the wine in a warming climate.
With all of the vineyards VDC and HVE certified, many surrounded by orchards, and dotted with beehives, it’s impressive to find a co-operative come together on sustainability, and considering there are only 17 Grand Cru villages in Champagne AOC, this shows it can be done at a premium level.
At the heart of the village of Vincelles in the Valée de la Marne, this co-operative represents 120 growers producing some 500,000 bottles each year and over 10 wine labels.
As the first co-operative to produce and sell organic cuvée, 70% of their vineyards carry the VDC label with the aim to be 100% in a few years, whilst 12 hectares of their vineyards will be certified organic by 2024.
Experimenting with the ancient grape variety, Petit Meslier, there is excitement about its tropical flavours and ability to retain acidity even in warm years.
Visit the new cellar door, opening towards the end of 2024 and you’ll find suitably-sustainable electric car charging outlets in the car park.
In the words of Maison Telmont’s President, Ludovic de Plessis “The wine is good if the earth is healthy.” As a pioneer in sustainability, transparency and creating debate around ‘the green revolution’ Telmont is focussed on future proofing not just themselves, but the whole region.
Telmont’s motto ‘In the name of Mother Nature’ resonates across the estate and in each of the 350,000 bottles created each year. Currently 95% organic, with biodynamic principles being introduced, the estate is working towards becoming 100% organic, in their quest to be net positive by 2050.
Telmont is one of the first houses to experiment with lighter glass bottles and the use of recyclable green bottles. Telmont no longer offers gift packaging, “the best packaging is no packaging” says Ludovic, a sentiment that may rankle what is traditionally a luxurious, pro-gifting industry. They only use electric cars and bio diesel tractors, everyone rides around on bikes and to top it all, they don’t ship their bottles by air, preferring the more nature-loving, slower sea and road transport options. If you buy your Telmont in the USA it will probably have arrived via a wind-powered Neoline ship.
One of the big Champagne Houses in Reims, this is a wine tourist mecca where 18 kilometres of cellars draws crowds as much for its revolving art exhibition as it does for its wines.
Louise Pommery’s story is well known, having taken over her husband’s wine business as a widow in 1858, and as the ultimate marketing wizard brought Champagne to the world.
This visionary approach continues at Pommery, their vineyards are HVE and VDC certified, with biodiversity along with organic and biodynamic farming practices at the heart of much of their operations.
Still independent and family run. 10 different cuvées of champagne are produced by this famous house from over 24,500 hectares across the region. Taittinger was one of the first houses to be certified HVE, alongside VDC. They welcome the use of horse-drawn ploughs at some of their vineyards and continue to lead on improving biodiversity and soil health, practicing responsible water management and reducing herbicides.
Taittinger’s cellar door in Reims is where its four kilometres of caves can be explored.
Where to stay in Champagne
Domaine Les Crayères
Royal Champagne Hotel & Spa
Hotel Les Avisés
La Villa Eugene Hotel
With thanks to the Comité Champagne