How champagne lovers hope to save the planet

It's synonymous with hedonistic New Year's celebration. But, says Michael McCarthy, champagne is going environmentally friendly
Click to follow

Champagne, ah, champagne. Champagne as tonic, yes; champagne as pick-me-up, yes indeed; champagne as chin-chin, champagne as cheers, champagne as what-ho, as bottoms-up, as down-the-hatch, as Happy New Year and mud-in-your-eye; champagne as one for the road. But champagne as Save The Planet? It would seem so.

The people who produce the stuff have just embarked on an enormous exercise to make all 15,000 growers of champagne grapes respect the natural world in everything they do. "Quality," says Dominique Moncomble, the man who knows more than anybody else about champagne-making, "is no longer enough. Consumers want to know how their product has been produced. And they want to be sure that this is in line with their beliefs."

Imagine telling every farmer in an English county that that from now on they will be expected to farm in an environmentally-friendly way, according to strict guidelines laid down in a fat manual, and that their performance against these criteria will be evaluated at the end of the year. You might have a better environment. But first you'd have a revolt on your hands.

In France, with their tradition of centralised authority, they order these things differently, and in Champagne, that's what they have done. The body which lays down the law for the lovely liquid, the CIVC – the Comité Interprofessionel du Vin de Champagne – has reinvented wine-growing. In place ofviticulture classique – the traditional way of doing things – it has introduced viticulture raisonnée, which more or less means viticulture using joined-up thinking. It is asystem touching every aspect of the vine and its care, Cartesian in its logic and putting one in mind of the old saw about the French education system, that at any moment you knew what any child of a given age in any town in France was learning. Its character is uniquely French. Its object, however, is universal, and notably praiseworthy: to avoid the harm to the environment wrought over the past 40 years by intensive farming. Long experimentation has shown, M Moncomble says, that if the precepts of viticulture raisonnée are followed, pesticide inputs can be cut by 50 per cent. It's not organic farming: chemicals are still necessary. But their use can be dramatically reduced simply by using your raison.

The Champagne region has not, according to M Moncomble, suffered the declines in wildlife that intensive farming has caused in much of England's pesticide-loaded arable farmland,where flowers, insects and birds have vanished. "We haven't had an ecological catastrophe in Champagne. Although biodiversity has shrunk everywhere in the world, we do not have a particular problem. But eventually, we would."

The motive to grow the grapes in a manner as environmentally-friendly as possible comes, rather, from the people in charge of preserving the prestige of champagne. "Consumers might have bought champagne 20 years ago because they liked the quality, but now that's no longer enough," says Moncomble, the CIVC's director of technical services. "Consumers now want the product they buy to be produced in the right way." Ensuring this is carried out is a major exercise: across the Champagne region there are more than 100 square miles of vineyards, where 15,000 viticulteurs grow the grapes whose juice is transformed into the 300 million bottles that are produced annually.

All growers have been sent documents by the CIVC, which show how they are expected in future to care for the vines. And they are expected to comply: the committee is an all-powerful body.

The techniques the CIVC are recommending are logical. For example, two of the main pests are the red and yellow spider mites, tiny bugs whose attacks turn the leaves of the vines prematurely red. Twenty years ago they were infesting half the vineyards and were countered with insecticides. One insecticide was enough at first; but then two were needed; then three. Not only were the spider mites growing resistant, but the insecticides were also killing off the spider mites' natural enemy, the predatory mite Typhlodromus pyri. The answer: bring lots more "typhlodromes" into the vineyards from the surrounding woods as "bio-control", so you can cut back on the chemicals.

Similarly with two more pests that eat the grapes and cause them to rot – the caterpillars of the Mediterranean vine moth and the European grape berry moth – viticulture raisonnée offers a better control than insecticides. It consists in dispersing a cloud of moth-hormones throughout the vineyard, so that the males are unable to locate females.

The CIVC even has its own meteorological service to record what is happening in each micro-climate; and the growers are encouraged to spray fungicides to prevent mildew only when the forecast indicates it is really necessary.

"We have said that all the grape growers of Champagne would have to share the same principles of respecting the environment, and so adopt the same techniques," M Moncomble says. "Not only a few pioneers, but the majority should be following this, and eventually everyone. We are seeking total elimination of all products harmful to the environment, and the use of products that respect it."

With this in mind, he states that there are no genetically-modified organisms in the vineyards, and that natural corks will continue to be used to keep the bubbles in, rather than synthetic ones. It's a big, imaginative, ambitious programme, and a surprising place to find it, perhaps. That the makers of the drink which above all others represents abandon and freedom from care should say, "We are trying to see the effects on the life of the soil of everything we do" might even be found rather moving. Well done, messieurs. Jolly good. Just the job. Top-hole. Spiffing. A votre santé. Tell you what: shall we crack a bottle now?