What does sustainability mean in Champagne?

What does sustainably-made Champagnes mean?

This feature was originally published on March 24th 2017, but has since been updated

You may have heard about sustainable agriculture but have you ever heard about sustainably made champagnes? Do you understand the difference between, sustainable, organic and biodynamic farming and wine making? Read this blog post to learn more about their main characteristics.

Sustainable agriculture refers to the ability of a farm, or a winegrower in our case, to produce food indefinitely, without causing severe or irreversible damage to the ecosystem. Sustainable growing methods are also used by a few champagne producers and are an interesting alternative to organic champagnes.

Champagne winegrowers introduced the principles of sustainable agriculture in 2004, by dramatically reducing the use of pesticides and replacing them by other eco-friendlier measures.

Farming sustainably in Champagne means to use no genetically modified material, prune vines intensively to get smaller yields but better fruits and avoid illnesses, use natural or wild yeast, no filtration or freezing and no animal clarifying agents.

Changes covered by the sustainability certification in Champagne include critical activities of preventing soil erosion, managing water supplies and runoff, constructing more efficient buildings, reducing transportation emissions and emissions related to glass and packaging.

So, what does sustainability look like in a vineyard?

The sustainability certification in champagne called VDC [Viticulture Durable en Champagne, which is a regionalised certification standard from the French national called HVE – Haute Valeur Environnementale] covers 99 criteria.

Among the key focus areas are carbon footprint, biodiversity, and water management. It also covers waste management, energy management, limited use of chemical treatments and soil regeneration. In the vineyards, biodiversity will be preserved using pesticides only in case of emergency (like at the doctors when using antibiotics). Growers will look at adding nutrients by planting non-competing crops like mustard seeds and alfalfa, cover crops will be planted on 30% of the vineyard surface to avoid water evaporation, rainwater recuperation systems will be installed, as well as solar panels and energy-efficient equipment for the cellar cooling systems.

There is no single national sustainability system for wine in France, but two programs bear mentioning – a sustainable agriculture system favored by a small group of wineries and a regional sustainability program in the Champagne region.

Haute Valeur Environnementale

The French Ministry of Agriculture developed the Haute Valeur Environnementale (HVE) certification in 2001, a three-tiered system that encourages farms and vineyards to focus on increasing biodiversity, decreasing the negative environmental impact of their phyto-sanitary strategy (i.e. measures for the control of plant diseases, reducing the use of pesticides and fungicides), managing their fertilizer inputs, and improving water management. Once an operation has attained the third and most stringent level of the certification process, it is deemed worthy of the title “High Environmental Value” (“Haute Valeur Environnementale” or HVE). The authorities recently established an official label that producers with this status can display on their products and marketing materials.

Viticulture Durable en Champagne

In the early 2000s, The Champagne trade association, Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne, hereinafter The Champagne Bureau, sponsored an environmental footprint assessment of the viticulture and winemaking in the region. In 2014, The Champagne Bureau launched its own “sustainable” winegrowing certification under the Viticulture Durable en Champagne (VDC) label, becoming the first French wine region to create its own sustainable label along the following certification requirements.

  • Reduce the use of inputs with the aim of respecting health and the environment
  • Preserve and enhance the “terroir”, aka biodiversity and wine-growing landscapes
  • Responsible management of water, effluents, by-products and waste
  • Reduce energy dependence and the carbon footprint of the sector

The Champagne Committee’s (Comité Champagne) objective is to drive 100% sustainably certified wine growers by 2030. In 2021, less than 25% of Champagne growers are VDC certified. This number should be higher in 2021.

And how is this all different from organic and biodynamic wines?

The confusion is that many sustainable wineries also follow organic and biodynamic practices. But not all organic or biodynamic wines are automatically sustainable.

Additionally, a winery does not need to be sustainably certified to use sustainable farming practices. As a matter of fact, some areas, such as Sicily, Tasmania, naturally don’t use pesticides and historically farm using sustainable practices.

Organic wine producers only use naturally produced grapes from healthy soils. Their harvesting methods are similar to those employed by farmers in the late 1800s and for consumers, this means that grapes are 100% free of pesticides, fertilisers, and chemical fungicides. In addition, any form of rotting and mildew that the grapes may be subjected to are treated and controlled using purely natural methods. Producing a 100% organic product is however difficult in the Champagne area because soil and weather conditions are conducive to the development of bacterias. Therefore, the vine quality depends on constant meticulous and costly maintenance operations. The alternative to 100% organic wine growing is sustainable agriculture. So while organic sounds good in practice, the quality of the wine often suffers.

Meanwhile, biodynamics is a holistic farming practice that originated from Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s. Biodynamics takes organic farming to a spiritual level by taking into account the different phases of the moon (Yes, the moon!) “You harvest grapes when the moon is in a certain position, and has a direct effect on the wine’s character and behavior. But organic stops at the farming level,” says Franck Pascal from Champagne Franck Pascal.

In order for vineyards and wineries to be certified biodynamic, they must meet the strict standards set by the Demeter Association, Inc., a nonprofit organization that certifies biodynamic practices. Wines that carry the Demeter certification (and thus are marked “Biodynamic,” “Demeter,” or “Demeter Certified Biodynamic”) meet the minimum requirements for biodynamic farming, such as setting aside 10 percent of acreage for a “biodiversity preserve,” and shunning synthetic pesticides and herbicides.

About Pesticides

In order to understand the usage of pesticides in Champagne, let’s briefly look back to the period following the Second World War. France embarked on an industrialized agriculture policy. It was imperative to produce as much as possible to rebuild the country’s economy. Champagne was no exception and between 1950 and 1980 the surface area planted with vines more than doubled, increasing from 11,000 to 24,600 hectares. But in the same period, champagne sales had multiplied by five. In order to keep up with this increasing demand, the inter-professional research center of the Champagne Bureau (a.k.a. CIVC or Comité Interprofessionel du Vin de Champagne) focused its activity on developing ways to increase yields and boost the economic growth. In their own vineyards they developed and tested higher producing clones and fertilizers with a high nitrogen content, as well as different herbicides and pesticides.

At SimplyChampagne, we select outstanding quality champagnes produced with sustainable growing method. Our selection of champagnes is based on the quality of the wine and the way the producers treat their ecosystem from seed to transportation, including champagne processing. With independent winegrowers using a sustainable agriculture – viti and viniculture -, we can provide our customers with an affordable product that is also environmental-friendly and certified sustainable.

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