Warmer summers mean better French bubbly, but the future is uncertain.

Climate change may be one of the greatest perils of our time, contributing to droughts, floods, deadly heat waves and super-charged hurricanes.

But for the moment, France’s Champagne makers are raising their glasses to it.

They say the climatic shift has made their lives easier and their Champagne better, allowing producers to harvest earlier than before.

“[Europe’s warmer summers] are a good thing for us,” said Pierre Cheval, independent producer of the Gatinois Champagne (at right). “They mean the grapes mature when the days are longer and it reduces the risks of diseases linked to humidity. Also, it’s much nicer for us to harvest at the end of August than in late September. I remember harvesting once under the early snows of October. That was not fun!”

In recent years, the shift from climate change has been rather dramatic.

Traditionally, the Champagne harvest ran from mid-September to early October, but it has progressively crept earlier. These days, the grapes are generally collected from late August through mid-September.

The harvest of grapes from the carefully delineated plots of the Champagne region officially began on August 19, 2011. That’s the earliest in almost two centuries. The combination of an exceptionally early flowering, limited spring rainfall and many sunny days has led to one of the earliest harvests for Champagne since 1822. The harvest has just now come to an end on September 14, 2011.

A harsh winter, a summer-like springtime and an autumnal summer meant that the vines lost some of the three weeks advance recorded in early July. However, the picking started early - August 19th in a few villages, with most crews starting on August 24th.

Pickers experienced stifling heat, around 35°C, very cool mornings, hot sun and thunderstorms, sometimes even hail. This unpredictable weather lead to a slowdown in the maturation of grapes, particularly chardonnay, and some Champagne producers had to temporarily suspend the picking.

Champenois are of the opinion that the quality of the grapes is good, with outstanding chardonnay. The grapes, marked by a good balance of sugar and acidity, offer the potential for promising cuvées though the final assessment will only be made when still wines are tasted in early spring 2012.

Still, whatever disastrous effects climate change may have on low-lying tropical islands or on herders across the parched African desert, the Champagne region’s elite are not protesting the earlier harvest — at least not yet.

Fifty-six year old Richard Geoffroy is one of Champagne’s leading figures. He’s Dom Perignon’s chef de cave, which essentially makes him one of the world’s premier Champagne artists. He chooses the plump, golden grapes, mixes them, and guarantees that the bubbly is up to the brand’s high standards. The cheapest bottle of Dom Perignon goes for $150. The best vintages skyrocket into the thousands of dollars.

Geoffrey also has the power to vet the production, or declare that there will be no Dom Perignon on a particular year, if he deems the grapes not fine enough.

Passionate and precise, he is prone to effusiveness when discussing bubbly.
“Wines are like human beings,” he says. “Great wines are sincere, charismatic and memorable, the greatest wines are those you can remember.”
And he agrees: a hotter summer often means finer wine. “Climate change goes in our favor. It produces more quality and consistency. It also increases our chances to make great vintage wines.”

The warmer weather also recasts the uniquely French logistics of the harvest.

Typically, the French abandon whatever might be going on at work to take vacation in August. “This year, we knew that the harvest would start earlier,” said Daniel Lalonde, CEO of Dom Perignon. “All of our teams and harvesting staff anticipated this and basically took earlier vacations.”

To this day, the precious grapes that make Champagne are still carefully picked by hard-laboring, muddy hands. Producers typically hire about 110,000 laborers to pick the legendary golden pearls. Cheval said this year’s early harvest also gave him a chance to employ high school students, who would have previously been back in class when the grapes are ripe.

None of this is to say that the industry is immune from the perils of climate change. Producers are well aware that the tastier Champagne might be ephemeral. If temperatures rise much higher, the Champagne could eventually suffer.

“If the weather is too sunny, the wine will be too sweet,” said Thibaut Le Maillaux, from the CIVC Champagne Trade Organization. “If temperatures go too high, the grapes will be too small.”

Also, what helps the French bubbly isn’t necessarily good for other French wines. The Champagne region, northeast of Paris, is much cooler than some other emblematic French wine regions, such as Bordeaux.

This year, however, has benefited from a lucky streak of climatic events, with an early spring that was warm and dry, followed by a summer of mixed weather, according to Le Maillaux. So, he says, the Champagne should be particularly tasty, “with good finesse — wines that will age more easily.”

Global Post,"Warmer summers mean better French bubbly, but the future is uncertain.", accessed September 17, 2011
Office of Champagne, "Champagne 2011: An Atypical Harvest", accessed September 17, 2011


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