Champagne Nukes own vineyards

A flip-flop on herbicide spraying reveals Champagne’s true attitude towards sustainability.

© Caroline Henry/Wine-Searcher
| The vineyards near Hautvilliers were blasted with herbicides.

The decline of Champagne in relation to its own environmental principles is played out in its vineyard, which looks more and more like a nuclear wasteland.

For several years, the Committeestar Champagne (CIVC) has been vocal about its environmental efforts, taking every opportunity to brag about its reduced carbon footprint. In addition, since December 2018, the region’s commitment to a “zero herbicide” policy has been widely disseminated and printed.

In 2003, Champagne was the first wine-growing region to precisely measure its carbon footprint, and to reduce it significantly over the past two decades. The biggest gain was undoubtedly the region’s semi-enforced switch to a lighter bottle a few years ago, but since then the results seem to have slowed. In February, while speaking to the press, the two co-presidents Jean-Marie Barillère, President of the Union of Champagne Houses (UMC) until March 31, and Maxime Toubart, President of the Syndicat des Vignerons de Champagne (SGV ), changed course when addressing the future of the region and omitted the environmental commitments of 2025 (a 25% reduction in CO2 emissions and the achievement of zero herbicides) to focus instead on a new vision for 2050.

Both later confirmed that it was very unlikely that either of the 2025 targets would be met, with Toubart adding that “herbicides, when used wisely, will likely remain a tool for grape growers in many years to come”.

At the beginning of April, at the SGV’s annual general meeting (AGM), he went further by stating that the omission of herbicides would not be added as an “obligation” to the region’s regulations, better known as the Specifications. On the contrary, it remains a “voluntary and pragmatic path” for the future, in other words a path that “the enlightened winegrower” should willingly take.

One wonders what changed between December 2018 and February 2022, and the answer is simple: French legislation has not imposed the complete restrictions on herbicides recommended by its Food Safety Agency, environment and work (ANSES).

As a reminder: in November 2018, ANSES commissioned a study on the use of glyphosate with the aim of eradicating its use by 2020 in accordance with President Macron’s position on the subject. The results of the study, made public in October 2020, severely restricted its use in viticulture both in the quantity used per hectare and in the area covered, which had been reduced to only 20% of the vineyard. In September 2021, when the new legislation was adopted, only the reduction in the amount used per hectare was maintained, sending the message that the elimination of glyphosate would not be as imminent as initially expected.

It didn’t fall on deaf ears, and just as lawmakers caved to pro-glyphosate lobbies, so did Toubart, who admitted he was pressured on the zero herbicide promise by addressing to winegrowers during the SGV general meeting.

Therefore, it had immediate results. Over the past month, many of the region’s sloping vineyards have been destroyed by herbicides, turning the verdant winter landscape into something resembling a Martian desert. In Hautvillers, the UNESCO-listed wine-growing hillsides look like a deserted Syrian battlefield, with burnt orange only sporadically interspersed with a bit of greenery – mostly from the vineyards of Moët & Chandon or Taittinger , or those of a rare organic winegrower.

Jérôme Vanneyken, until recently Hautvillers’ representative at the Association Viticole Champenoise (AVC), estimates that only about 20 hectares out of the approximately 200 hectares owned by winegrowers are free of herbicides. Fortunately, almost a third of the vines in the village belong to Chapmagne houses, and it seems that their vines have remained mostly green. While most houses have tried harder to stay on the zero herbicide path, it’s important to point out that some have made the same U-turn as growers. With no official figures available, one has to go by sight, and at first glance it appears that two-thirds of the village’s vineyards have been – at least partially – sprayed with glyphosate or other herbicides.

Back to bad old habits

Hautvillers is not the only village baked by weedkillers; a quick tour around the Côte des Blancs or the Grande Vallée de la Marne shows the same disastrous landscape. Many growers said this election season would distract the powers-that-be from blatantly breaking the law: The 20% restriction may have been lifted, but dry-spray remains illegal.

Not that that’s stopping the most avid herbicide users, who have now often reapplied glyphosate. This is also illegal, as a single application with a restricted dose is officially allowed. However, with the CIVC in silent agreement and the SGV refusing to impose herbicide restrictions, it seems that Champagne has returned to its old and reliable practices and is on the verge of continuing its excessive regime of herbicides.

The Champagne authorities have reneged on their plans to phase out herbicides and the results are evident.

© Caroline Henry/Wine-Searcher
| The Champagne authorities have reneged on their plans to phase out herbicides and the results are evident.

In the absence of binding restrictions, producers have little incentive to adopt alternative soil management. One could hypothesize that the houses – or at least those that have so far refrained from using herbicides – could punish the winegrowers who use them by lowering the price of the grapes or refusing to buy the grapes. After all, there is no point in working without herbicides when most wine grapes will come from top-sprayed vineyards.

Although it may seem logical, everyone knows it’s not going to happen. These houses may have understood the importance of a “green” image, but they are as reluctant as the CIVC and the SGV to enact the law and impose a change in viticultural practice.

You only need to scratch the surface a bit to see why – everyone wants a big harvest this year. Early figures for the first quarter of 2022 show annual sales at 330 million bottles (between April 1, 2021 and March 31, 2022), the highest since 2007, which many interpret as a sign that the increase in sales is not are not just triggered by the Covid rebound but are the new normal. In addition, the last two harvests have been poor – 2020 for commercial reasons and 2021 due to bad weather – hence the general feeling that a large harvest is needed to prepare for future sales and restore the Individual Reserve (IR) ( partially) exhausted. ), the Champagne buffer system to meet market demand in more difficult years.

Vanneycken, who is converting to organic, told Wine-Searcher that “most growers are betting on a designation of 12,000 kg/ha, which is easier to achieve with the use of herbicides.”

This focus on how much to harvest at a time when the vine is just beginning to bud is the main reason why ecological reforms – like the eradication of herbicides – continue to falter. It also proves that the zero herbicide announcement in 2018 was nothing more than a big green-washing exercise. Several people who were on the CIVC technical committee at the time confirmed that it would have been extremely difficult to achieve zero herbicides in such a short time and suggested that the announcement had been political and commercial rather what a real commitment.

However, everyone agrees that today’s reversal of the commitment without explanation or comment will only elude the reality of a zero herbicide objective for Champagne. Wine-Searcher invites comments from Toubart, Barillère and David Chatillon, the new president of the UMC and co-president of the CIVC, in search of an explanation for the sudden reversal on the policy of zero herbicide, potential consequences for clandestine cover vineyards sprayed, and what this means for the ecological future of Champagne, remained unanswered. Or in the words of Toubart: “I have nothing to say about it”.

Nevertheless, the results of this attitude will be felt in the years to come. Besides a potential economic backlash that could (at least theoretically) lead to a commercial boycott by environmentally conscious wine professionals and health-conscious consumers, there are more immediate ecological consequences. There is no denying that the heavy use of herbicides in Champagne in 2022 will have disastrous effects on local rivers and could even render the region’s tap water undrinkable.

It also exacerbates climate problems (which the CIVC claims to want to alleviate) according to Josep Maria Ribas Portella, sustainability manager at Familia Torres and founding board member of International Wineries for Climate Action. “From a climate perspective, the wine sector should aim to become as biologically regenerative as possible. This means increasing soil health, water retention, micro-diversity and carbon sequestration. Against the use of herbicides which will kill all kinds of weeds and deplete the soil Ideally, cover crops should be maintained for as long as possible, improving carbon sequestration.

Interestingly, carbon sequestration by cover crops is also part of Barillère’s plan for Champagne to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, in line with targets set by the French government. And many great houses have indeed adopted this philosophy in their own vineyards. However, their willingness to continue buying grapes from growers who insist on growing with herbicides negates their efforts.

With 1.5 billion bottles in stock, Champagne’s biggest players can afford to make the right climate choice this year – or they can choose to look the other way and carry on as if nothing had happened.

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