In Champagne, like in many of the world’s most famous wine regions, vineyard land has become egregiously expensive. According to winemakers I spoke with on my recent visit, one hectare (about 2.5 acres) now sells for more than 1.5 million euros. Prices for grand cru vineyards go even higher.
As I walked through the grand cru vineyards in the famed Cote des Blancs region near the picturesque village of Avize, in addition to simply enjoying my first stroll through a terroir I had tasted many times, I found myself experiencing another emotion I never would have expected to feel in some of the world’s greatest and most expensive vineyards: disgust.
Many of Champagne’s most storied vineyards are seemingly lifeless other than the vines that emerge from the soil, and to add insult to their chemically denuded injury, they are quite literally covered in trash.
Stripped bare of any grass, weeds, or cover crop by decades of herbicide use, the soil of Champagne is littered with broken glass, broken porcelain, bits of plastic, cigarette butts and many other small inorganic objects. In some cases, the broken glass is so thick on the ground that the whole vineyard shines from afar, glossy with reflected light.
Those vineyard rows that do not shine often have no luster because the broken glass has been covered by a thick layer of shredded tree bark, whose purpose, I was told, is to prevent erosion of the bare soil between rows. Without this protective cover of bark, the kind you might find in any landscape store, the soil washes away too easily in the frequent rain. Looking carefully at the rows of vineyards that lack such addition of bark, you can see this in action, as the ground dips in shallow saddles between the rows of vines.
After getting over my shock, I sought an explanation for this horrific state of affairs from many of the producers I visited.
The trash is perhaps the easiest to explain. Back towards the beginning of the 20th Century many of the winegrowers of Champagne found themselves in need of compost. A lot of it.
Some enterprising soul, or several, struck a deal between the thriving city of Paris and large parts of Champagne. In exchange for paying only the costs of transportation, the vineyards of Champagne could have all the compost they wanted, straight out of the rapidly growing trash heaps of Paris. It was a win-win. Paris got rid of its trash, and Champagne got free fertilizer. No one could tell me for sure which side came up with the brilliant idea.
Back in 1908, the stuff that got shipped out of Paris would likely have made today’s organic farmer reasonably happy. At the time, that waste would have been a combination of food scraps, shells, bones, human waste, bits of wood, hemp cloth, rope, and many other pieces of entirely organic matter. Perhaps there was a little bit of broken glass or porcelain mixed in, but at the time glass and porcelain were much more likely to be re-used, or even repaired if broken, rather than thrown away.
Fast forward fifty years, and the deal between the Champenoise and the Parisians was still going strong. We all know the old saying about fixing what isn’t broken.
But the world changed dramatically in that same fifty years. The petrochemical revolution brought about by the Second World War introduced the rapidly modernizing world to plastics and all manner of disposable inorganic materials, all of which were ending up, broken, shredded and pulverized, in the dumpsters of Paris and therefore also in the trucks that headed periodically to the vineyards of Champagne.
This practice continued unabated until 1997, when it was outlawed by the governing body of Champagne. But the damage was done. A significant portion, but of course not all, of Champagne’s vineyards are covered in decade’s worth of trash, the organic material having long dissolved and settled in the rain leaving a frightful scene behind.
These materials in the vineyard are almost entirely inert, and even some that we now know are less than inert (such as BHPA plastics) quite likely do not directly affect the health of the vines nor the quality of the wine that comes from them. But they are ugly as hell, and made even more unsightly by the lack of any vegetation that might, absent any other purpose, simply cover them up.
Which brings us to herbicides.
Many growers around the world use herbicides to some degree, to control the amount of vegetation under their vines. For those less familiar with the finer points of modern viticulture, vegetation under the vines serves many purposes and has many effects, but chief among them is the tendency for cover crops to compete with the vines for water, which ultimately affects how much fruit those vines produce. While not quite as simple as it sounds, the more vegetation under the vines drinks up water, the less the vine has to make all those juicy grapes.
Cover crops have several other effects too, both good and bad. On the good side, vegetation provides home to beneficial insects, fixes nitrogen in the soil, and promotes healthier microbiology in the soil. Some winegrowers also say that by taking up surface water, cover crops force the vines to send their roots deeper into the soil for water, which makes them more self-sufficient and enhances the transmission of terroir.
On the bad side, in addition to competing with the vines for water, cover crops can also trap cooler air in the vineyard and dramatically exacerbate the damage of frost, which is why many growers choose to mow their cover crops during the period of time when the vines become active in the Spring but there still exists the danger of a frost.
No matter how they farm, the growers of Champagne regularly battle a number of significant challenges. As perhaps the coldest wine growing region in the world, the danger of frosts has always been high. The vines are trained quite close to the ground, making them particularly susceptible to the freezing layer of air that could be trapped by vegetation between the rows. With frequent rain and high humidity, rot and other fungal diseases are a much bigger threat in Champagne than in warmer, drier climes.
But perhaps more than almost any other wine region in the world, the growers of Champagne are particularly concerned with yields. In particular, they generally want to keep them as high as they are allowed by law. For the curious, that maximum, set by the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC), has generally averaged around is 11,000 kilograms per hectare, or about 5 tons per acre. In the face of slowing demand, the CIVC recently lowered that number to 10,000 in 2013.
In a world where we constantly hear winemakers and wineries boast about the minuscule yields of their vineyards and their link to quality, why on earth do most winegrowers in Champagne want to harvest the maximum amount of grapes from their vineyards? Because that’s how they make the most money. You see, most of the people in Champagne that own vineyards don’t actually make wine, any more than avocado farmers usually make guacamole. There are 15,000 winegrowers in Champagne, by CIVC estimates, and only 3,000 or so producers of wine.
Most people growing grapes simply sell them to a local cooperative, get paid by the ton, and are happy to put food on the table. When your sole livelihood consists of your ability to produce a certain amount of grapes every year, no matter the vicissitudes of the notoriously troublesome Champagne climate, you possess a great incentive (having met certain quality thresholds) to farm as conservatively as possible. Since the end of the Second World War, that has meant liberal use of petrochemical-based herbicides, fertilizers, insecticides, fungicides, and other chemical disease control measures.
And that, dear readers, is why I am sad to report that the soils of champagne are, in large measure, ugly, hard, and completely lifeless.
That is, of course, a sweeping generalization, against which many exceptions exist. But it remains largely true. As I drove around Champagne in the height of Spring, where most everywhere else I’ve been in the world there would probably have been lush green grass, plants or flowering herbs carpeting the vineyards, in Champagne there was just mile after mile after mile of grayish white soil with no sign of life, much of it frequently bearing the rust-orange residue of recently applied herbicides. By my anecdotal estimate, fewer than 20% of the vineyards had any noticeable vegetation whatsoever.
The combination of these seemingly lifeless soils and the astonishing amount of trash in the vineyards left me marveling at the quality of wine that has been eked out of these soils. As I stood in the grand cru vineyards of Le Mesnil that contribute to some of the most expensive, sought after, and high quality wines of Champagne, I could not reconcile the sight beneath my shoes with the beauty I have tasted in my glass on many occasions.
Ultimately, I found myself thinking about what the best producers of Champagne might be able to achieve if they spent the effort to revitalize their soils as many of their compatriots in Burgundy have been doing with increasing diligence for the last 10 years. The most famous soil microbiologist in the world of wine, Claude Bourguignon, once famously said that the soils of the Sahara had more life in them than the soils of Burgundy. He might as well have been speaking about Champagne.
Leaving aside the possible increase in quality that could result from healthier soils, the Champenoise are certainly going to need to improve things if they want their vineyards and soils to last another generation.
Now, ready for the good news? Things are getting better, and according to a fairly predictable pattern that continues to play out in many wine regions I visit around the world, not just in Champagne.
As the latest generation takes over management of the vineyard, many are insisting that the very first order of business involve the reduction of chemical applications on the vineyards. Most of the young people I spoke with have dramatically reduced or even eliminated pesticides, and most are eliminating herbicides as well. This younger generation are willing to do more work in the vineyards than their aging parents, and that’s good, because eliminating chemical inputs requires much more labor to compensate. The ones most excited about making shifts towards sustainability (not to mention organics) are those who make their own wines, and therefore can taste the results of their efforts.
The real hope for change, however, are not the small grower-producers with 10 acres of vines. The vast majority of the vineyards in Champagne are used to make wine for the big negociants and cooperatives. When those folks start using sustainable viticulture practices, and better yet, requiring their growers to also do so, then things will really get moving.
One of the most heartening moments I had during my time in Champagne last week was a visit with one of the best organic producers of Champagne. In addition to showing me his vineyards, where his special lightweight tractor was busy carefully tilling his cover crop into the rich, beautiful soil, he walked me a ways down the road and pointed proudly to another plot whose farming practices seemed identical to his. I assumed this was yet another one of his vineyards until he gestured to a stone marker which clearly designated the vineyard as being the property of Champagne Lois Roederer, one of the largest of the famous Champagne houses.
I can only hope that, as it has gone for centuries in Champagne, that when the large houses decide to change the way they operate, everyone else quickly falls in line. The long term sustainability of Champagne almost certainly depends upon it.
In the meantime, perhaps the good folks at the CIVC can sponsor a concerted effort to help people at least get rid of the trash in the vineyards, if only so that when visiting wine lovers stop by to see where their favorite Champagnes grow, they are left with memories that measure up to the level of pride that the Champenoise have for their products, their region, and their history. It’s a pride that is justified every time I open a bottle of great Champagne, and one that should extend not just to what’s in the bottle, but also to the ground from which it comes.