Every now and again, a rebel challenges tradition and demands change. It reminds me of Topol in the ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ asserting confidently ‘Tradition! That’s how we keep our balance’, just before his daughters fall in love with all the wrong men and their traditions topple. Without tradition, Topol warns, our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof.
Well grab your fiddle and a ladder, because Moët et Chandon – which by any yardstick is a big name in Champagne – is challenging tradition. Vincent Malherbe, Director of Vineyard and Supply at Moët et Chandon advocates change: ‘Nothing is immutable. 150 years ago chardonnay did not exist in Champagne – now it’s the king grape!’
His first proposed change is pretty fundamental: the grapes themselves. Champagne has not been immune from the effects of climate change. For that reason the Champagne harvest is 3 weeks earlier than it was 20 years ago. Grapes build up sugars more quickly in a hotter temperatures and need to be harvested before the potential alcohol levels are too high for the legal limit of Champagne. Harvest now starts in August whereas it used to be in September. Many Champagnois have done what they can to adapt within the existing rules: Already some have planted the less common permitted grape varieties of Champagne, particularly Arbane, Pinot Blanc (known in Champagne as Pinot Vrai) and Pinot Gris (known in Champagne as Fromenteau). Some producers such as Tarlant, Laherte Frères, René Geoffroy, Drappier and Agrapart are re-focusing on these heirloom varieties. Arbane is particularly useful for its searing acidity which is so necessary to support the ageing of great Sparkling wines. Pinot Blanc is better able to cope with the increased frost challenge. M. Malherbe wants to go further still. He suggests venturing outside the permitted Champagne varieties and in particular experimenting with Italian varieties which are slower ripening. In Oiry MHCS (Moet Hennessy Champagne and Services) will conduct R&D to assess experimental trials in the various countries where they have vineyards, including France, USA, Brazil and India.
If that wasn’t shocking enough, M. Malherbe is also reviewing the sacred cow … harvesting by hand. Next time you do a vineyard tour, watch out for the machine. Both Champagne production and English Sparkling Wine production enshrine hand harvesting in their regulations (eg in the English PDO). It has always been thought necessary to ensure the quality of the grape juice. So it is startling that Moët et Chandon advocates mechanical harvesting trials. While it is true that there is mechanical harvesting in Burgundy and Bordeaux so a trial may be justified in Champagne, it is nevertheless a radical departure. It is dictated purely by cost: The current harvest cost of 0.50 to 0.80 per kg of harvest is not thought to be sustainable in the long term. M. Malherbe wants to give mechanical harvesting trials a go, because ‘nothing should be taboo’.
Except perhaps herbicides. They are not good for the planet, and are gradually being phased out in Moët et Chandon vineyards. Unfortunately, the weeds under the vines still thrive, so Moët et Chandon suggests under-vine hoeing. Tillage is not perfect – it disturbs the carbon balance and is expensive requiring additional machines and labour – but many feel it’s a price worth paying for the planet. Perhaps herbicide poison is the one Champagne tradition that could easily be abandoned?
Champagne, like most wine-growing regions, has strict qualitative controls. They have been built up over centuries and have a chilling effect on innovation. Which is awkward because the heat is (literally) on. Climate change is warming Champagne. No-one delights in warm Champagne. Hot on the heels are the dynamic vignerons of Germany, Switzerland and Italy, unrestrained by such tight red tape. M. Malherbe describes Champagne regulation as ‘frozen’, but sees opportunities in the melt. He would like every vigneron in Champagne to be allowed to experiment with 2% or 3% of their vineyards (to be excluded from the Champagne AOC naturellement) to discover what works in a warmer world. Over the last 20 years simple experiments have been proved promising: ‘semi large vines’ (where there are wider margins between vines that can be managed mechanically, and lower density planting of vines) cannot legally be adopted across Champagne, but they do work. There is no difference in the taste of the grapes from a semi large vine than from a traditionally grown vine, and they are significantly less expensive to produce. So why not allow them? The sticking point seems to be the requirement for unanimity: the winegrowers’ union has an outspoken, powerful minority and the majority view doesn’t hold sway. Nothing less than 100% can change existing regulation, and as every experiment requires permission from several authorities, so if one refuses, that’s it. Delay and indecision are equally unhelpful. It would be very sad to see the regulators fiddle while Champagne burns.
I have no idea whether M. Malherbe’s proposals are right or not for Champagne. My instinct is that quality might plummet, but if trials were permitted then trials would show that. I could be wrong. I do however have a sneaking admiration for anyone who dares to think creatively. As Steve Jobs said ‘The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.’ Perhaps its time to help that fiddler onto the roof.