2020 delivered Champagne its earliest harvest start date on record. This is a monumental fact, particularly because this region has one of the most thoughtful approaches to harvest in France.

“When you are picking the grapes, it is the very last gesture,” says Thibaut Le Mailloux, director of communications of Comité Champagne, the trade union representing all Champagne wine growers and houses. This is because Champagne has a network of around 600 growers who test samples from over 800 plots during the month leading up to harvest.

They are looking not only for technical ripeness, but also expressiveness, such as aromatic fullness. This assessment will help determine harvest start dates. “We apply human talent to assess the best picking circuit,” adds Le Mailloux, calling the harvest network a “peer to peer” operation. “If it doesn’t make you dream of the Champagne of your future, it isn’t ready.”

As these assessments are submitted, the Comité Champagne collects them and creates something like a harvest opening schedule. It goes village by village, segmented by grape variety, a published indication of the zone during which a grower or house is permitted to harvest. “This is only the frame,” says Le Mailloux. “Each house or grower then organizes their own plan, and sometimes there are breaks between plots.”

“We have just experienced the earliest harvest to date,” says Mailloux of the August 17th kickoff, “very clearly due to climate change in Champagne.” This is the region’s seventh August harvest since 2003. This year was hot and dry—Champagne’s driest July ever. “The future climate is now,” adds Mailloux. “We cannot wait for better days. It’s changing the habit of everyone, everywhere.”

The habit includes looking ahead, considering solutions. One future tool for winegrowers in Champagne and elsewhere in France is to determine qualified grape varieties that are more resistant to challenging conditions. For Champagne, this means grapes that can ripen slowly. “Some lesser known grapes are much more acidic, many were replaced by Chardonnay which reaches roundness more easily,” says Mailloux.

Chardonnay is one of the calling cards of Champagne, but it’s only been a player for just over a century. But now, along with Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, it is a mainstay. There are also four other varieties permitted for use in Champagne: Fromenteau, Pinot Blanc, Petite Meslier and Petite Arbanne—these make up less than 1% of cultivation.

In the early 2000s, a French governmental organization called the Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique (INRA) embarked on an innovative varietal creation program known as ResDur, to determine sustainable and environmentally friendly methods for the wine industry. The focus is cross-hybridization for the development of resistant vines that also have the potential for favorable (though, for now, not specific) wine.

This could ultimately lead to inclusion in what’s known as the “French catalog” of grapes. During an initial phase, four disease-resistant varieties found a place in the catalog: Voltis, Floreal, Artaban and Vidoc. Second and third phases are underway, and this is where Champagne fits in.

For ten years, Champagne has been a part of this program as an in-situ growing environment, which currently sits at the “intermediate” stage. Seedlings with the required resistance genes have been planted in Champagne’s experimental vineyards. Here they will be observed for a period of about six years.

These will be narrowed down, and further observed before a final administrative round, hopefully securing a catalog slot for four or five more varieties that will thrive in the “future climate.” The full process takes approximately 15 years, so this is a long game.

So why not just water the vines? As a regulatory matter, Champagne doesn’t irrigate its vineyards. If grapes are given water, they will be diluted—bigger grapes with the same amount of aromatic qualities. “We don’t need to irrigate, yet,” says Mailloux. This is why getting decades ahead of alternative plantings is important. For now, these varieties aren’t the wine of Champagne, but when they are needed, the plan is to be ready to go.

Frédéric Panaiotis is the chef de caves at Champagne Ruinart, founded nearly 300 years ago, when “Chardonnay was not mentioned.” Panaiotis is proud of the sustainable development of his region, and how a full toolbox is being considered, including his own house’s eco friendly packaging. “Champagne is an example for the world,” he says. “It isn’t just organic vineyards, not at all, you have to look at the whole picture.”

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