The effects of global warming in Champagne
Wednesday 2 May
Global warming doubters should head to Champagne where climate change is undoubtedly occurring. Following one of the earliest harvests on record in 2011, the Champagne region was hit hard by frost in April.
Speaking to Michel Drappier this week, the “manager, secretary, and babysitter” of Champagne Drappier, he admitted the region had been “badly hit”.
In terms of volume reduction, he said: “It could be 10, 15, 20 or 25 percent but we don’t know yet because we had a hot period in March and had an early budburst. The frost arrived and since then growth has been very slow because it has been cold.” However, Drappier isn’t worried about supplies running short - there is plenty of reserve wine in the region’s cellars.
But quality is a concern: “When you have frost the second budburst is not of the same quality. Vineyards are weaker against mildews and botrytis. When Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier are badly frosted the shoots are more fragile. They are not as well fed by the sap, so that may affect the quality of the grape to the end.”
Looking back to the 2011 vintage, one of the earliest on record, it raises further questions about the consequences of global warming. “The climate has changed for sure because on average harvest would be September 22, but now the average is September 10,” he notes.
The Champagne house harvested its first crop in on August 21 1821, so early vintages are not totally unknown but at that time, yields were much lower, so the fruit ripened more quickly.
In terms of grape analysis, acids have fallen in recent years, according to Drappier but pH, which is crucial for wine stability, has altered little due to earlier harvest dates. And when it comes to wine’s sweetness level, the extra ripeness of the fruit means the sugar content in the liqueur de dosage is falling. (Consumers also seem to be moving toward Champagnes with a lower dosage.)
What’s more, climate change could alter the mix of varieties in the region. Currently Pinot Noir is the most-planted variety (39% of plantings), followed by Pinot Meunier (33%) and Chardonnay (28%). Yet, a little-planted variety, Arbanne, which along with Petit Meslier, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris make up 0.3% of total plantings in the Champagne region, may have a greater role to play in the future. Arbanne is a late ripening variety with high acidity and plenty of elegance, according to Drappier. I checked Oz Clarke’s Grapes and Wines, and the Oxford Companion to find out more about this little known variety but it didn’t get a mention! We’ll have to take Michel’s word for its characteristics.
Petit Meslier, another marginal variety, which is most commonly found in the Marne valley is also ripening more reliable too so it may have a greater role to play in the future. Both varieties are included in Drappier’s Blanc de Quatre Blancs. Unfortunately, it’s sold out in New Zealand so I’m going to have to wait for my first taste until the next shipment arrives.