The damaging blend of high temperatures at the beginning of the year and late cold spells, symptomatic of climate change, is a catastrophe for the viticultural world. Already felt by winegrowers over the past several years, the phenomenon will only intensify. The planet is getting warmer, but the vine is paradoxically dying of cold. As a result of human activity, the probability of frosts during the growing season has increased by 60 %, and the disaster of last April is likely to be repeated regularly in the years to come. In 2021, Champagne’s winegrowers suffered a yield loss of nearly 30 % due to frost, while mildew claimed another 25 to 30 %. At the end of fall, plants enter a dormant period, which lasts until around the end of December, when they start preparing for the next growing season. With global warming, vegetation growth occurs earlier than before, and while the leaves can recover after a late frost, the fruit generally does not. The climate is becoming increasingly unstable, with a multiplication of extreme events and unprecedented sequences. In 20 years, grape ripening has advanced by 15 to 20 days. In the past, good years could make up for the occasional bad seasons with extreme weather conditions, but now they’re much more frequent.
Moët & Chandon’s Mont-Aigu vineyards
Photo courtesy of Moët & Chandon
With the viticultural sector suffering, Moët & Chandon, the best known, best-selling and most consumed champagne around the globe boasting the largest estate in Champagne today with 1,200 hectares of vineyards, insists on playing a leading role in preserving nature and reducing its carbon footprint, deeply aware that it has to safeguard the terroir and ecosystem that nourish its vines. Hoping to serve as a model for sustainable practices for other Maisons in the Champagne region, the brand originally established by Claude Moët in 1743 and today owned by the LVMH Group is also helping its winegrowing partners to obtain sustainable viticulture certification. I discuss with agronomist and winemaker, Stanislas Milcent, in charge of quality, food safety, environment and research and development for Moët & Chandon, about the House’s strategy and goals concerning sustainability.
As a 278-year-old brand focused on savoir-faire and luxury, is the 21st century all about sustainability?
The Champagne region is a precious territory and the only place where champagne is made. Founded in 1743, the leaders of Moët & Chandon have always believed that the exceptional quality of our champagnes owes much to the precious nature and soil that nurtures its grapevines. It’s the very source of our champagnes, and the heart of our success. Moët & Chandon has the largest estate in the Champagne region with 1,200 hectares of vineyards. With the distinction of being the largest landowner comes a great responsibility: that of caring for the soil and its natural ecosystem, of learning from nature and establishing a true connection with the land. The House’s commitment to preserving this natural environment has always been an integral part of our quest for excellence. From fighting the phylloxera plague in the late 19th century – when the whole region was under severe threat due to a microscopic insect attacking the roots of the vines – to using more sustainable viticulture practices and reducing our own impact on the environment, Moët & Chandon has always relied on science to preserve nature. Our vision for the 21st century is to continue to ensure and develop the excellence of our champagnes, and simultaneously reduce our Maison’s environmental footprint.
Protecting biodiversity in the Moët & Chandon vineyards
Photo courtesy of Moët & Chandon
What changed in the year 2000 that prompted you to commit to sustainability? Is this because of the expectations of environmentally-conscious champagne buyers where you are responding to changing consumer demands, or a decision that came from the brand itself to ensure its future survival?
Our commitment to the preservation of nature and our vineyards for future generations has always been part of our House’s philosophy. In 2000, we took the decision to accelerate to sustainable viticultural practices because we could not stand by and watch the impact of climate change. Even if small, we had to make our own contribution to preserve our natural environment. Our push towards sustainability was in no way influenced by our consumers, as it is the House’s belief that this is the right thing to do and the way to carve out a better future for nature and champagne.
What exactly does it mean to have obtained double sustainable viticulture and high-quality environmental certification in 2014? What were the criteria?
Our Maison has been committed to sustainable viticulture since 2000. This vision became a reality in 2007 when Moët & Chandon obtained ISO-14001 certification for all its sites and activities. Then in 2014, Moët & Chandon obtained a double sustainable viticulture and high-quality environmental certification throughout its estate. This certification, verified by the independent organization Ocacia, has 99 criteria that range from soil and plant nutrition to management of vines and waste management. Today, the House’s immediate goal is to support our community of over 2,000 winegrowing partners to obtain the same certifications so that together, Champagne’s exceptional terroir may be preserved for all. Our teams at Moët & Chandon have been working over the last 15 years to find the most efficient and sustainable practices to reduce the use of herbicides in our vineyards to finally become entirely herbicide-free since the end of 2020.
1940-1950: Portrait of Emile Moreau, vineyard manager, and his assistant, Andre Simon, at Fort … [+]
Photo courtesy of Moët & Chandon
In what ways have you been protecting the biodiversity of your lands and investing in science?
Soil preservation is key for us, as it contributes to the conservation of biodiversity and the coexistence of life with landscape elements such as trees. On top of our 1,200 hectares of vineyard, we have 469 hectares that are fully dedicated to the preservation of biodiversity with woodland hedges, forests and ponds. Each is a biodiversity reserve in itself that contributes to fighting diseases and reducing water stress and temperature. With regards to science, Moët & Chandon has always relied on innovation to preserve nature and improve the excellence of our champagnes. In 1900, Raoul Chandon de Briailles, a sixth-generation descendant of Claude Moët, founder of the House, established the École Pratique de Viticulture Moët & Chandon, later called Fort Chabrol, as both a school of viticulture and oenology and a research institute with a mission to develop scientific grafting techniques and to share its know-how of vine-growing practices. In 1966, the House became the first producer in Champagne to invest in stainless-steel vats to improve processes of wine fermenting, ageing and storage in its cellars. Today, we continue this tradition from Fort Chabrol by reappropriating our wine-growing practices. We have created a conservatory to preserve the biodiversity of our grape varieties. On the oldest plots, we found more than 900 vines of old Pinot Noir or Chardonnay, for example, to set aside and preserve for the future, providing our successors and all the other champagne Maisons the keys to the environmental challenges they might face in the future. It is, in a sense, a vast archival library of the vineyard!
Describe the green technology in which you’ve invested since 2012 for your production and distribution processes.
Since 2012, our Maison has taken important steps to reduce its own carbon footprint by investing in green technology. We became Champagne’s first company to invest in electric straddle tractors to use in viticulture. Our fleet counts 12 electric tractors, offering driving flexibility and low noise levels with daily fuel savings, which help to reduce green-house gas emissions. Today, the House recycles 99 % of its waste and uses close to 100 % green electricity, which together contribute to reducing its carbon footprint not just throughout the region, but also well beyond Champagne.
A Moët & Chandon electrical tractor in the vineyards
Photo Charles Lafon
Are you ahead or behind of the competition in terms of sustainability? Do you wish to become the benchmark in this field? What are the main challenges?
As the leader in Champagne, we have the responsibility to do everything in our power to preserve nature and set an example for the whole region. In this spirit, Moët & Chandon inaugurated in 2012 a new facility dedicated to winemaking: an amazing benchmark in terms of sustainability and high technology. Located in the village of Oiry close to Epernay, Mont-Aigu became France’s first site awarded with the label of “High Environmental Quality”, and serves as an ultra-modern “cuverie” designed with the utmost respect for the environment and in step with modern norms of energy efficiency, allowing the House to reduce its carbon footprint and lessen its water usage.
Do you also encourage independent growers in the region to shift their farming towards sustainability by working as a mentor of sorts, offering consultant advice? Why is it important for the wine world to adopt healthy agricultural practices?
Moët & Chandon doesn’t work alone; we collaborate with more than 2,000 winegrowers and winegrowing cooperatives throughout Champagne. The Maison helps partners to become individually certified in sustainable viticulture, for example by conducting training sessions for winegrowers. We have also set up a collective certification in sustainable viticulture processes. The idea is to allow winegrowers with small or medium vineyards to be certified, thanks to reduced and mutualized costs and an improved frequency of audits. As of today, 20 % of the overall estate of our 2,000 wine-growing partners (approximately 848 hectares) is certified as sustainable viticulture.
Moët & Chandon Grand Vintage 2013
Photo courtesy of Moët & Chandon
How much are you spending on R&D for sustainability? What does making the transition entail in terms of changes to farming and production practices, and has it been easy?
We just built a new R&D center, which represents a budget of €20 million, excluding equipment. This facility will enable us to adapt to the challenges of climate change and evolving consumer expectations. Thanks to the work of our teams partnering with an ecosystem of institutes and universities, we will address topics such as microbiology to select and adapt our yeasts and bacteria and changing raw materials (more sugar, less nitrogen), while delivering the best quality for our finished products. We will also work on grape varietals and rootstocks to adapt to climate change and with better resistance to mildew, for example. We are also working on CO2 sequestration in the field, looking for cover crops in the vines that would enhance the life in the soil.
How have the tastes of your champagnes changed since you adopted sustainable practices? Is there a noticeable change?
No noticeable difference can be perceived in the taste of a champagne made from grapes cultivated through sustainable practices. Nevertheless, we believe it is the right approach to preserve our terroir. We are confident our consumers expect this from our Maison and appreciate our refined champagnes even more, knowing that their favorite drink has been crafted respecting its very source: nature.
Stanislas Milcent, Quality and Environment Director at Moët & Chandon
Photo courtesy of Moët & Chandon
What are your thoughts on organic and biodynamic viticulture? Will you one day transition to this?
Certifications and labels, like the organic label, are all positive ways to protect nature. We are inspired by these approaches. They all contribute to shaping the sustainable viticulture of the future. At Moët & Chandon, we firmly believe in the certification of sustainable viticulture for its global vision. However, looking for any solution to promote environmental protection, Moët & Chandon is converting 10 hectares – already under sustainable viticulture in Champagne certification – to organic certification. Started in 2017, this test is managed by our winegrowers liaising with the new R&D center. Its goal is to evaluate the risks and opportunities at each step of the process from the vineyard to the finished product, through the key milestone of tasting by our panel of winemakers. Simultaneously, we are also exploring biodynamic ways of working in a few plots with the same state of mind. These projects are part of a global policy to explore all the ways to protect nature and our terroir.
What are Moët & Chandon’s future plans?
Moët & Chandon is constantly exploring and experimenting to preserve the natural balance of the Champagne terroir. We are interested in innovations such as biocontrol (plant protection methods based on the use of natural mechanisms) or soil covered with plants. However, it’s fundamental to understand that the results of every method depends on the climate, the terroir and the level of pests. It is therefore necessary to constantly review the model, observe and conduct small-scale tests in order to learn, act and move forward. This is Moët & Chandon’s approach in its quest to preserve nature.