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Bollinger embraces historic Champagne grapes to combat climate change

Bollinger is replanting the historic grapes of Champagne to combat the effects of a warming climate, and retain the freshness of this famous fizz long into the future.

Bollinger is replanting the ‘forgotten’ grapes of Champagne in a bid to combat the effects of summertime heatwaves

Following news reported by db yesterday that US winery Larkmead Vineyards is planting a research block at its Calistoga property, believing that heat-resistant varieties such as Touriga Nacional may be better suited than Cabernet to a warmer Napa of tomorrow, it should be noted that other producers in different parts of the world are taking similar measures.

Notable among them is Bollinger, which is exploring a range of options to retain the acidity in Champagne, which is so important to the character of the fizz, and yet has diminished over the past 30 years.

And one of the solutions to keeping the freshness of Champagne is to embrace the historic grapes of the region, according to Bollinger deputy cellar master, Denis Bunner.

Speaking at a seminar on sustainability in London earlier this year, which was organised by Bollinger’s UK importer, Mentzendorff, Bunner outlined the threat, and his response.

“For the past seven years at Bollinger we have been replanting the forgotten, old grapes of Champagne, because today we only use three, but there used to be seven [in regular use],” he said, referring to the fact almost the entire appellation is currently covered with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier, split roughly into equal parts.

However, the region also allows the plantation of four other “forgotten” grapes, which are Pinot Gris (called Fromenteau in Champagne), Pinot Blanc (also known as Blanc Vrai in the region), Arbane and Petit Meslier, and it is the latter two that hold particular interest for Bunner because of their high levels of natural acidity.

He explained, “In 2018, which was a very early year, with our harvest starting on 23 August giving very mature grapes, we found that the two old varieties, Petit Meslier and Arbanne had a pH below 3.0, because they ripen more slowly.”

As a result, he said that Bollinger would now be planting more of these two grapes “because they mature more slowly, so they can bring freshness to our Champagnes 30 years from now.”

Continuing, and looking back, he recorded the impact already of a changing climate in Champagne.

“In the last 30 years due to global warming the acidity has reduced in Champagne [on average] by 1.3 g/l, and it will continue to fall, so these old grape varieties could be interesting to use again to produce freshness,” he said.

During a subsequent discussion with the drinks business, he said that the main issue for Champagne was the sensation of freshness, because it is hard to retain acid levels during very hot growing seasons.

“The problem for managing acidity, especially the level of Malic Acid, comes with heatwaves during August, which we had in 2017 and 2018,” he said.

“This is more a question of weather than climate, because if it is warm early in the year, but cool in August, then we will have enough acidity, but if it is warm during August, then it affects the acidity… for sugar levels, we can adjust the date of harvest, but it is harder with acidity,” he added, when asked whether picking grapes earlier would provide a solution to the issue of acid-retention.

On a larger scale, Bunner referenced a further possible solution to sustaining Champagne’s freshness in the face of hotter summers, and that concerns a project from the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA) and the Comité Champagne.

As part of this, the two organisations are experimenting with crossings of Champagne varieties with hybrid grapes, selected both due to their slower rate of ripening, as well as greater levels of disease resistance – the latter being necessary as the region experiences warmer and wetter conditions, which promote the spread of fungal diseases, especially botrytis.

While Bollinger is working with the historic grapes of Champagne on a trial basis, there are other producers who are already making and selling bottles using the old varieties of the region.

Notable among these is Champagne Château de Bligny, which makes the Cuvée 6 Cépages, combining the three classic varieties with Arbane and Petit Meslier, and Champagne Drappier, which produces the Quattuor Blanc de Quatre Blancs, comprising equal parts Chardonnay, Arbane, Petit Meslier and Pinot Blanc.

The latter producer is also soon to release its first Champagne made using Fromenteau.

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