Celebrate that champagne and the growers working to save it

1 Januari 2020

If your New Year’s celebrations include a champagne toast in honor of old friends and Auld Lang Syne, thank a grape grower in France. Then take a moment later to consider the challenges posed by climate change and the work those growers are doing to protect the perfect bubbles in your champagne flute.

It’s an ongoing battle and has been for decades, according to Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC), the industry association based in Epernay, France. It carries the Champagne growers’ gold-standard imprimatur, with products worth €4.9 billion (US$5.5 billion) in 2018 sales. That’s nearly 302 million bottles found in nearly all countries, though about three-fourths stay in the European Union. The grape-growing region also accounts for 30,000 jobs and another 120,000 workers at harvest time.

Yet it’s seen dramatic changes in long-term growing conditions in the past three decades, and not just the severe storms or heat waves that damage vineyards. What’s happened so far is an average temperature increase of 1.1°C, which has meant harvests that begin 18 days earlier, according to climate information CIVC released in June. The future likely will bring more heat.

For the grape varietals themselves – primarily pinot noir, meunier and chardonnay – the sugar content is up by 0.7 percent and the acidity is down. Soil nutrients, respiration and disease risk all are altered by climate.

The industry takes great pride in its products beyond the economic impacts, so that’s already led to changes in the vineyards and beyond. Some are relatively simple: With one-third of all harvests in the past 15 years now occurring in the heat of August, the workers switch picking to the coolest parts of the day and they don’t leave the filled grape bins waiting in the sun. Even the bins are different, because growers discovered a 5°C difference between cooler white bins and red ones after six hours of exposure.

The vines themselves may be spaced further apart, making them more resilient in the face of water shortages or spring frost, and how and when they’re pruned helps to protect the acid content of grapes. These are quicker fixes while the industry, which began as early as 2003 to assess its own carbon footprint, invests in viticulture research.

Similar approaches continue into the fermenting process, bottling, shipping and waste management. The “greener” champagne practices mean a 20 percent reduction in the carbon footprint of each bottle. That’s achieved with lower bottle weights and packaging that trim materials and transport impacts, which are no small thing because they account for about a third of total production carbon emissions. There’s also a commitment to circular economy principles in water use, waste management and byproducts.

In the field, about 80 percent of the 120,000 tons of vine wood generated each year is returned to the soils as compost. There’s much room for improvement – fossil fuels and biomass energy remain key question marks – but the champagne growers say they’re on their way to a goal of 75 percent emissions reduction by 2050.

Electric tractors, state-of-the-art meteorological sensors – France’s Champagne region is taking steps to protect your champagne celebrations now and in the years to come. That toast still comes with a cost of about 2 kilograms in carbon emissions per bottle, though, so be sure to enjoy it wisely.

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