Champagne has long been notorious for its over reliance on chemicals in its vineyards.
Things are changing, and a concerted push towards more environmentally friendly practices has seen Champagne halve its chemical treatments in the past 15 years.Champagne has halved its chemical treatments in the past 15 years. Click To Tweet
Despite the region’s best efforts, its erratic climate makes practising biodynamics or even organics a nail-biting pursuit.
The biggest menace is disease, a challenge to manage under organic or biodynamic regimes, which do not permit the systematic fungicide sprays traditionally relied upon in this wet climate.
There are grumbles in Champagne that some have jumped on the biodynamics bandwagon for marketing purposes, while continuing to purchase fruit that is not grown biodynamically.
More sensible growers have embraced the best of organic and biodynamic practice for reasons other than marketing.
Louis Roederer manages Champagne’s biggest biodynamic regime by an order of magnitude, although certification is not the goal.Biodynamics are just one way to achieve terroir expression in champagne. Click To Tweet
Over the past decade, Louis Roederer has converted more than 60 hectares to biodynamics, and its fruit has already shown greater ripeness, more acidity and more accentuated salty minerality.
The house has found that a different approach is necessary in each region of Champagne.
‘There are some years in which biodynamics is much better, and some years in which it is not so effective,’ says Louis Roederer Chef de Cave, Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon.
‘Biodynamics removes all the safety of chemicals, and if it’s not done properly, you can really get caught quickly,’ he admits.
Brothers Charles-Henry and Emmanuel Fourny know this well.
In the mid-1990s, they conducted biodynamic trials, forsaking synthetic chemicals in two parcels in their Veuve Fourny estate in Vertus.
The wild spread of mildew necessitated weekly sprayings with copper sulphate, permitted under biodynamics despite its toxicity and detrimental effect on the soil and vine growth.
Much of the crop was lost, and the brothers returned to non-toxic synthetic products with a regime of grass in the mid-rows and pheromones to reduce insect breeding.
Not for every grower
‘If there are no grapes it is difficult!’ exclaims Pascal Agrapart in Avize. ‘I prefer to have grapes to make wines!’
With vineyards 20 kilometres apart in seven villages, he has difficulty getting between his vines by tractor to practise an organic regime.
‘I don’t want to have certification because I want to be able to plough the soil when I can, and use chemicals when I need to,’ he explains.
Leading Cumières grower Jean-Baptiste Geoffroy describes his approach as ‘bio-logical’ rather than ‘bio-dynamic.’
He pays focused attention to the health of the soil through ploughing under the vines, planting of natural grasses in the mid-rows and avoidance of herbicides, but explains that a fully organic approach does not make good sense here.
‘When we have 25 millimetres of rain, I must spray very quickly,’ he points out, ‘but after 20 millimetres of rain in Cumières it isn’t possible to get a tractor into the vineyards. It’s very steep and the thick layer of clay makes it very muddy.
‘In Chouilly, by comparison, you can have 50 millimetres and get in the next day.’ Such practicalities dictate the use of inorganic chemicals here.
Some question whether a biological approach is all it’s cracked up to be.
‘The CIVC [Champagne’s regulatory, supervisory and promotional body] is conducting a lot of experiments with sustainable and biological vineyards,’ explains Ruinart Chef de Cave Frédéric Panaïotis.
‘In 2012 they sprayed their biological vineyards with organic sprays seven times, and their sustainable vineyard with systematic sprays twice. Which is more natural?’
In the little village of Gueux, the intuitive Jérôme Prévost makes deeply terroir-driven wines on a tiny scale without herbicides, but he is adamant that his is not a biodynamic approach.
‘Making wine isn’t like cooking, but biodynamics is too much like a recipe,’ he maintains.
‘Every plot of land is different and you have to work with emotion and sensation to understand nature, not read about it from a book.
‘You have to go out in the vines and feel the sun and the wind; to have all of your senses attuned; to taste with your eyes and your ears.’
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