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Climate change in Champagne has winemakers prepping for future

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Global warming has mostly put chilly Champagne in a climatic sweet spot, with average temperatures that ensure grapes ripen every year.

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IN the cold, chalky cellars deep underground at boutique Champagne house AR Lenoble, co-owner Antoine Malassagne shares his worries about the future of the region's world-famous fizz. Its classic style depends on crisp, zingy acidity and edgy, fruity, salty, mineral flavours, the result of deep, chalky soil and an until-now very cool climate.

So far, global warming has mostly put chilly Champagne in a climatic sweet spot, with average temperatures that ensure grapes ripen every year. But that's not the whole story, says Mr Malassagne. Buds appear earlier, so spring frosts are more destructive. Warmer nights push maturity but also encourage new pests and diseases. "Harvest is two weeks earlier than it was 20 years ago," he explains. "It used to be mid-to-late September. Now harvest often starts in August, as it will this year. But maturity during hot days and nights results in lower and lower acidity in the grapes, which means less freshness in the wines."

It's also essential to Champagne's taste: Acidity is what allows the wines to age. In 2010, Mr Malassagne started working on ways to make sure there was enough, well, zing in his future bubbly.

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Champagne's basic technique of blending different varieties (chardonnay, pinot noir, and sometimes meunier), vineyards, and vintages is the way winemakers compensated for poor years. Reserve wine from older vintages, for example, added depth, complexity, and richness when grapes didn't fully ripen. Now Mr Malassagne is creating reserve wines to add "freshness", too, by conserving them in magnums under natural cork to preserve brighter flavours.

That's only one of the many ways the Champenois are trying to maintain the sparkling style we know. Champagne Bruno Paillard is experimenting with covering the soil in vineyards with straw to prevent sunlight from destroying microbial life. Others are using winemaking techniques such as blocking malolactic fermentation (the second fermentation in the barrel that converts fresh-tasting malic acid to softer lactic acid) to bring greater perceived acidity to the wine.

Over the past two decades, Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon, the chef de cave at super-star Louis Roederer, has been systematically experimenting with everything from biodynamic viticulture to DNA analysis of yeast to gentler forms of pruning and reinventing winemaking techniques for chardonnay, all "to maintain what has made Champagne's reputation". Roederer is the most innovative large producer in Champagne right now, and its superb wines are just getting better and better. The current non-vintage Brut Premier is the best I've ever tasted, and the just-released, brilliant 2008 has a precision and purity that seem almost electric.

The 2003 heat wave, when France baked in record summer temperatures, was a wake-up call for many growers. Over the last six months in 2018, according to the Comité Champagne (CIVC) trade association, the region has been two degrees hotter than normal, and this will be the fifth vintage of the last 15 to start harvest in August.

Technology offers more potential solutions. Over breakfast in Reims, Thibaut Le Mailloux, the communications director of the CIVC, outlined one of the organisation's long-term projects, a team effort with the French National Institute for Agricultural Research to invent new hybrid grape varieties that will ripen more slowly in warmer conditions and be more resistant to pests. Since 2010, their scientists have been crossing pinot noir, chardonnay, and meunier, the three most important grapes with super-géniteur varieties.

What about carbon cutting?

The CIVC first assessed the industry's carbon footprint in 2002. Since then, the region's growers have significantly cut emissions, taken to recycling all the water used in wineries, reduced pesticides by 50 per cent, and begun using lighter-weight Champagne bottles, the equivalent in emissions of removing 8,000 cars from the road each year. BLOOMBERG