Yves Couvreur traces the lineage of his winemaking family in Champagne back through almost a dozen generations to 1644.
But it is only since he took over the business in the 1980s that the farming calendar has been radically transformed, with the grapes being harvested earlier and earlier because of the hotter summers triggered by climate change.
“This is the seventh time since 2003 that we are starting the grape harvest in August,” he said on a blisteringly hot afternoon at his winery in the village of Rilly-la-Montagne, overlooking the vineyards that stretch towards the cathedral city of Reims. “Before then, it only happened twice.”
Couvreur said he planned to begin harvesting on his six-and-a-half hectares by the middle of next week.
The three- to four-week advance in the date of the vendange from the traditional September start — in the past, the grape harvest sometimes began as late as October — is no small matter for Champagne. The grapes are picked by hand and winemakers must hire and often find accommodation for the more than 100,000 temporary workers who do the job.
Other French wine-growing regions are similarly affected, after one of the hottest and driest European summers on record.
Some winemakers in the eastern Beaujolais region complain that their grapes have shrivelled because of the extreme heat and dry weather. In the south, there are vineyards where grapes were harvested on the earliest dates ever recorded, with some such as the Champ des Soeurs in Fitou starting in July.
French winemakers are responding to the challenge posed by the changing climate by adapting farming and vinification practices. The Champagne region, east of Paris, has the advantage of being at the northern limit of where grapes for wine have traditionally been viewed as a viable crop.
Laurent Panigai, a wine expert and agronomist who heads the General Union of Champagne Winemakers, said that, using a 10-year-moving average, grape harvest dates began to advance from 1987 onwards as global warming took hold.
Yet a changing climate does bring some advantages when it comes to winemaking. “Because the vine is a Mediterranean plant and Champagne is in the north . . . we’re looking at a very good harvest in terms of volume and of quality,” he said.
Winemakers further south in Burgundy and around the western city of Bordeaux also predict a good year. Fabienne Bony in Nuits-Saint-Georges said she was looking forward to a decent yield after consecutive harvests were hit first by the 2020 drought and then by a savage frost that damaged the vines the following spring. “We’re really feeling climate change since 2003,” she added.
Growers and wine experts say the challenge for all regions in dealing with hotter summers and earlier harvests would be to balance sugar and alcohol, typically boosted by sun and heat, and the acidity that is usually reduced by them — along with the other components that contribute to the complex taste of wine, all of which are affected by temperature and the time of maturation.
“Climate change shakes up these balancing acts,” said Jean-Marc Touzard of the French national research institute for agriculture, food and the environment, who has researched strategies for how the wine industry can respond to global warming.
These include more irrigation, new methods of pruning and weeding that protect the moisture in the plant and the soil without encouraging fungi, and the introduction of more heat-resistant grape varieties. Unfamiliar Greek and Italian varieties such as Agiorgitiko, Assyrtiko and Nero d’Avola are already being tried in the south of France.
For some, it means moving vineyards to higher ground or even outside the traditional wine-growing areas.
Taittinger, the French champagne house, has followed the warming climate northwards and invested in sparkling wine production in southern England.
But champagne producers insist they can cope with the threats to their livelihood. “Even with climate change, we can still have champagnes that keep their freshness,” Panigai said. “Having more sun gives us more room to manoeuvre to improve champagne.”
As for the English, “we need competitors”, he said. “But simply copying the history of Champagne or its collective intelligence is not possible. [The wine produced] will be something that’s very good, but it will be different. And it takes time.”
Although the US dethroned the UK last year as France’s biggest export market for champagne, British demand remains strong. “The UK continues to consume champagne despite Brexit,” Panigai said.
Couvreur, who produces 30,000 bottles of champagne annually, said he was equally confident, recalling what he dismissed as temporary fads for sparkling wines from Belgium, Spain or Australia, although he has more respect for the makers of Italian prosecco.
“Global warming doesn’t move the soil . . . it just moves the dates,” he said. “Demand for sparkling wine continues to grow.”