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What’s fuelling the Champagne herbicide debate?

The issue of using weedkillers in Champagne has been in the news again, but what’s behind an increasingly-heated herbicide debate, and will the region ever be able to ban the chemicals?

On Friday, a comprehensive piece by Caroline Henry for was published, which considered the issue of herbicides in Champagne and cited an increasingly vociferous push for the region to ban the application of weedkillers in the appellation.

Drawing attention to polarising views, she highlighted a crusade called #StopHerbicideEnChampagne, and, at the other end of the spectrum, a yet-to-be-formalised move among growers to push for the continued use of weedkillers on the grounds that they contribute to the economic – if not environmental – sustainability of the appellation.

Describing the issue as ‘the great herbicide divide’, she wrote, “The right to the use of herbicides in Champagne has become almost as divisive as the right to carry a gun in the US.”

Several months before Henry’s in-depth article, db had drawn attention to the reasons why herbicides had become such a heated topic in Champagne, which is worth briefly revisiting now.

Aside from the fact that herbicides are toxic to humans and wildlife and work their way into the food chain and water courses, while degrading soils, the problem with weedkillers in Champagne in particular relates to a pledge made by the region in 2018 to see them phased out altogether by 2025 – an aim that now seems extremely unlikely to be reached.

No doubt aware of the high chance of missing this deadline, at the end of last year, it was stated at the General Assembly of the Association Viticole Champenoise (AVC) that the target to eradicate weedkillers from the region – while still desirable – would not become enshrined in the rules of the appellation, known as the cahier des charges, or technical specifications.

In other words, getting rid of weedkillers would be voluntary; not compulsory.

Such an announcement was made by Maxime Toubart, president of the main growers’ union called the Syndicat General des Vignerons de la Champagne (SGV) – which is also the body that oversees the region’s production rules.

Stressing that the move to zero herbicides was an “objective for 2025”, Toubart said that it would not be a rule of the region. If it were, then in two years’ time, anyone using chemical weedkillers would not be allowed to sell their grapes for making Champagne.

During an exclusive interview with db earlier this year, Toubart justified his position in the December AVC meeting, which was led by the joint presidents of the Comité Champagne – Toubart representing the growers, and David Chatillon for the houses, or Union des Maisons de Champagne (UMC).

Looking back to the 2018 announcement, Toubert told db that the decision to ban herbicides in Champagne by 2025 had been made after a period of benign viticultural conditions.

“When we decided in 2018 to speak about zero herbicides, it was after two easy years,” he said.

Moving forward to the current situation, he said, “With our experience now – with all the technicians in Comité Champagne – we can say that we can further reduce herbicide use in Champagne, but we don’t think zero herbicides is the best choice, because in some places you can stop using them, but in others, you can’t.”

He said that such locations included steeply-sloping vineyards, where mechanical weed control is difficult, and so he told db that the Comité Champagne was promoting a range of weed control measures that would include herbicides.

“Maybe the best solution is cover crops, mulching, and herbicides – we have decided to propose a toolbox with a lot of possibilities,” he said, adding, “And where you can avoid putting herbicides, then you should stop using them.”

Continuing, he said, “We continue to have the same target of zero herbicides in Champagne, but while it is easy to say, it is maybe not a good idea… The aim to ban herbicides by 2025 is still there, but no winegrower will be left without technical solutions,” he promised, referring to the use of weedkillers where necessary.

For Chatillon, the furore following December’s statement that herbicides would not be banned as part of the rules governing the production of Champagne was the result of a “misunderstanding”.

Speaking to db alongside Toubert during a meeting with the co-presidents in Epernay at the start of this year, Chatillon said that “the objective” to see herbicides phased out of Champagne by 2025 had not gone away, but that it would not be in the cahier des charges of the appellation, “because there are some situations where it is impossible to use zero herbicides.”

Chatillon explained that “some people” had misinterpreted Toubert’s announcement, believing it to mean that the zero-herbicide objective had been abandoned altogether, which he stressed was not the case.

However, the idea that there are some slopes that are so steep that the only solution is to apply weedkillers is not true, although it is true to say that the costs of mechanical weed control are much greater in such sites.

For example, one of Champagne’s most vertiginous vineyards is Philipponnat’s Clos des Goisses, with a gradient ranging from 30-45 degrees, and yet herbicides are not applied.

Too steep for tractors, the soils are worked by hand with the help of horses, an expensive but effective solution, although it is one that manager Charles Philipponnat is hoping to improve upon.

“We are looking at ways to plough less and weed less by planting low-growth grasses that prevent the bad weeds growing, but at some point you have to control the invasive weeds; doing nothing is not an option,” he told db earlier this year, when discussing the reasons for his expensive manual management techniques.

As for imposing wholesale rules on the region’s growers, he outlined the challenge for the appellation.

“The average parcel in Champagne is 0.12 hectares, and the average farm in Champagne is less than 3ha, of which only 1ha is owned by the farmer and other 2ha are rented from individuals, who tend to be other members of the family… all of this makes it very difficult to make structural decisions,” he said, referring to imposing strictures on landowners.

While a fragmented network of small growers – which amounts to as many as 16,000 people – is one challenge for any rule-changers in Champagne, the major disincentive to ditching the weedkillers is the effect it has on yields.

A few years ago, when the market for Champagne was less voluminous, the quantity of grapes that could be harvested by growers to make Champagne was lower – yields in Champagne are governed by the region according to the level of current and forecasted demand, as well as the amount of stock held in the producers’ cellars. (See article here for a unique exposé of Champagne’s maximum permitted yields versus the actual yields achieved, along with the shipments in that year, from 2010-2022).

But today, with Champagne supply in the 2020 and 2021 harvests being lower than the current level of global demand (which was 326m bottles last year), yields set by the Comité Champagne were increased in 2022, allowing more grapes to be made into this sought-after product, bringing a greater income per hectare for growers.

This is relevant, because getting rid of weedkillers can see the vine’s grape production fall by as much as 15% from one harvest to the next, and that’s a result of the green ground cover that flourishes without the poisons – the low-level plants compete with the vine for water and nutrients.

When governed yields in the region were being set at an average of around 10,000kg/ha (producing 288.2m bottles from the 34,000ha region), a 15% reduction in output due to a shift to sustainable viticulture may have been less of an issue, because the permitted yields were lower than the amount the vine was naturally producing.

However, with maximum allowable yields rising to 12,000kg/ha with the 2022 vintage (equivalent to 346m bottles), and likely to be the same or higher for this harvest, growers will want to make sure they reach that figure to maximise their income.

With grapes prices at their highest point ever, up around 10% across the region to reach €7 per kilo (or more) from the 2022 vintage, a 15% reduction in yields that could follow the switch to zero herbicides may see a grower lose as much as £12,600 in income per hectare – based on a drop of 12,000kg/ha to 10,200kg/ha (or €84,000/ha to €71,400/ha).

On top of this, the grower may have to invest in new mechanical tools to control the weeds, which would of course present a further cost.

Now, it should be noted that certified sustainably-produced grapes in Champagne do attract a premium from buyers of around €0.5 per kilo, but that would only bring in an additional €5,100 per hectare for the growers, based on them receiving €7.50 per kilo of grapes at the lower yield of 10,200kg/ha, netting them €76,500 per hectare (This is still €7,500 less per hectare than they would get if they hit the maximum permitted yield with non-certified grapes: €84,000/ha, as outlined above).

As Toubert confirmed to db, a vineyard that is certified as VDC (Sustainable Viticulture in Champagne), generally has 15% lower yield than one that chooses not to follow the VDC guidelines.

And he says that it’s the same impact if a grower opts for the HVE (High Environmental Value) certification too, which is another way of proving you manage vines sustainably.

Across the 34,000ha of Champagne, Toubart told db that 64% of production is currently certified (most of which is VDC), although that figure falls too 34% when one measures the number of people with the accreditation.

He also says that the aim is for Champagne to be 100% certified sustainable by 2030 – and carbon neutral by 2050.

But the challenge will be to convince those who have not already moved to sustainable practices to do so, and the impact on the region’s production levels when they do.

As Bollinger’s managing director Charles-Armand de Belenet said to db in January, Champagne is going to have to gear up for an overall decline in yields – despite a relaxation in the limits imposed by the Comité.

“We know yields in Champagne are going to drop in the coming years,” he told db, before citing two reasons for this.

The first of these is the increasing age of vines in Champagne, which are now becoming less productive, and more susceptible to diseases such as esca, exacerbated by a changing climate, which puts greater stress on the plants.

“The vines are old – the average today is more than 30 years, when the best balance between quality and quantity is 20-25 years, and due to climate change we see a lot of disease coming,” he said.

The second reason concerns herbicides. While Bollinger is fully in favour of the eschewing the toxic products and was, in 2012, among the first wine producers in France to achieve HEV certification and the first in Champagne to gain VDC across all its vineyards – which currently total more than 180 hectares – de Belenet warned db that there will be an impact from stopping the weedkillers.

“When you get VDC and stop using herbicides, you see a yield-decrease of 15% on average, and, with 60% of the region’s production certified, we need to convince the remaining 40%, but we need to be ready for a 15% reduction on that,” he told db.

With the actual certified production in Champagne in 2022 being a little higher than 60%, at 64% according to Toubert, that means the equivalent of 221.4 m bottles of the fizz are now made using sustainably-farmed grapes, leaving 124.6m bottles that are not.

And if the latter 36% becomes sustainably produced, and, as a result, suffers a yield drop of 15% from the 12,000kg/ha achieved last year, then that would mean a decline in output of 18.7m equivalent bottles – making the total for the region 327.3m bottles.

With last year’s total shipments reaching 326m bottles, which was the highest annual figure in 15 years, and third greatest since the pre-Millennium surge in 1999, the region can afford in volume terms to make the shift to zero herbicides based on current levels of demand, especially considering Champagne’s system of holding at least one harvest’s worth of reserve wines in tank, and at a time when average stock levels among producers amounts to around four years’ worth of sales.

So, aside from the negative publicity that Champagne risks from images of poisoned plants reaching the consumer, there is a justification for the region to make the move to zero herbicides by 2025: the elevated supply of grapes from very high-yielding vineyards is not necessary.

And, while growers may suggest that ditching the weedkillers will affect the financial sustainability of producing grapes in Champagne, the opposite may be true.

The cost of making Champagne is going up significantly due to the increasing price of not just grapes, but labour and energy, along with dry goods as well as rising interest rates (a major added expense if you have to borrow cash to finance maturing stock).

This is now pushing up retail prices of the fizz, affecting the positioning of Champagne, which is moving further upmarket, and therefore distancing it from more volume-driven distribution.

In short, to justify higher on-shelf prices, Champagne needs to undergo a gradual shift – helped by quality, branding and ranging – towards more high-value expressions, be they ‘brut réserves’, rosés or blanc de blancs, along with vintage and prestige cuvées.

Such a move will not necessitate more volumes. Quite the contrary in fact: it will require more quality. And with many producers already actively seeking more VDC certified grapes both to meet a market demand, but also to deliver a finer base wine made according to a set of good-practice rules, those not moving to sustainable viticultural practices may not find as ready a market for their grapes, and, as a result, it’s possible that the price differential between certified and non-certified bunches will widen.

If such a scenario proves true, it is likely the economics of being a grape grower in Champagne will favour sustainable viticultural practices, and the remaining 36% of production will be drawn towards certification.

But this will take time. And the figure that is most significant in db’s mind is the low proportion of people that Toubart said are certified – only 34% of the 16,000 growers.

That’s approximately 10,560 landowners that need convincing of the merits of ditching the weedkillers – and with less than two years to go until the region reaches the deadline for its self-imposed zero herbicide objective.

Without a change to the rules to make the switch obligatory, it’s safe to say this target is a long way off being hit.

Forcing a change however would be fraught with difficulties. Earlier this year French sugar beet farmers drove hundreds of tractors into the centre of Paris to protest against a tightening of rules regarding pesticide use in agriculture, and one doubts that two-thirds of Champagne’s growers would quietly submit to enforced changes to their viticultural practices that would immediately diminish their incomes – especially within such a short time scale.

With this in mind, it could be that Toubart and the Comité Champagne decided against tightening the rules on weedkillers for fear of a backlash.

But whether it’s farmers defending their right to apply herbicides, or green-minded growers highlighting viticultural bad-practice, neither side of this debate is helping Champagne’s image – a development that could be of particular concern at a time when this fine sparkling wine is moving up in price, and markedly.

After all, it’s luxury products that tend to attract the closest consumer scrutiny – and a pricier Champagne needs to be geared up for that.

Finally, it’s worth noting that while it is the houses that are responsible for promoting the excellence of Champagne, and profit from it, it is the growers that earn a healthy and reliable income due to the product’s top-end positioning. In other words, keeping Champagne’s image ‘clean’ is in everyone’s interest.

Read more

SGV qualifies ‘U-turn’ on promise to eliminate herbicides in Champagne by 2025

How sweeping reforms will help Champagne handle peaks and troughs in supply and demand

Champagne ships 326 million bottles in 2022

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