Showing posts with label climate change. Show all posts
Showing posts with label climate change. Show all posts

Saturday, May 2, 2020

Robots In The Champagne Vineyard. Cellar Master Émilien Boutillat Details Climate Change Challenges.

Robots In The Champagne Vineyard.
Cellar Master Émilien Boutillat Details Climate Change Challenges.

Locally manufactured robots tidy up the rows. Could Irish agriculture use these?

Champagne has faced many stern challenges over the decades. Climate change is the latest. And they are responding, according to Piper-Heidsieck cellar master Émilien Boutillat. But the response must be more than local. “It must be global,” he insisted during his Liberty Wines organised online masterclass last Thursday.

Émilien was introduced by David Gleave MD of Liberty who said climate change was an issue not just in Champagne but right across the world. “Émilien  was born in the heart of champagne. He has made wine around France, in Chile, in South Africa and in New Zealand. He has a global perspective, a scientific approach and is one of the rising stars of the wine world.” Not a bad intro at all!
Harvest dates get earlier and earlier

The cellar master reported that, under blue skies, the vineyard was “in good shape” and that “the winery was busy also.” And then it was straight to business. A series of charts on temperature (including soil temperature), rainfall and so on left no one in any doubt that climate change has been creeping up on the area for decades. 

Perhaps the most convincing was the one (above…) showing harvest dates. As you can see, from the 50s to the 80s, the vintage was mostly late September and sometimes in October. Not any more. Most now are in the earlier part of September with a few in August. And expectations, according to the Huglin indicator, could see Champagne having the kind of temperature that Montpelier now has by the end of the century. Not straightaway but, as Émilien said: “Even one degree is huge in wine.”

He outlined probable responses under two headings, one is “to adapt to the change” and two is “to be part of a global effort to reduce our impact on the climate”. In the Piper-Heidsieck case, there are two specific areas, in the vineyard and in the winery.

The viticulture response to the fight against Spring Frost, for instance, could see active methods (wind-machine, heaters, over-vine sprinklers) employed but Émilien prefers passive methods (Adequacy grape/terroir, row grass cover, delayed pruning) because the impact of the active methods on the environment “is too big”.

So what about hail storms? “We cross our fingers!”. “Some hazards though are local, we get grapes everywhere in Champagne.” So if a few growers are hit by hail, more than a few will have no such damage. They encourage their partners (the growers) to farm more sustainably also.

Sustainability's important at Piper

 Piper have been certified by two organisations for their drive towards sustainability and biodiversity. “We think outside the box… have more resistant grass between the rows… employ responsible viticulture. .. We do better every year.” Piper have water and gas management systems, recycling 100% waste from house vineyard, limit fertiliser use, zero insecticide, zero herbicide and more.

Then there is canopy management, maybe wider distances between the rows, maybe new grapes (Arbanne, Petit Meslier). Seven grape varieties are allowed in Champagne though basically just three (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier ) are used. While the big three grapes seem to have bene there forever, in the 17th century, the grapes used for Champagne were Gouais and Fromenteau. Who knows what will happen in the long term? During the Question and Answer session, Émilien said there are currently small amounts of the other grapes but “when you plant a vineyard it is for 50 years. It (replacement) will be slow, takes time, more for the long term.”

They support local and have invested in a local start-up to produce robots for vineyard operations. This one has wheels though and looks like a small bus. “It is electric and can find the start of the row automatically and then do the weeding along the sides. We really believe in it.. all the growers can benefit.” It does what the old farm implement called a scuffler used to do but much more efficiently by the looks of it.

The winemaking response will also be over a number of different fronts. The harvest date will be one and that will involve tasting, tasting, tasting. “Don’t just look at the numbers.”  Cooler terroir (within the area) may well come into play. As may Pressing Juice Splitting (to help with acidity). Malolactic fermentation may be blocked to enhance freshness in the reserve wines. Indeed, reserve wines from cool years, such as 1996, 2007, 2008, and 2013, could become ever more valuable. Dosage is the last step of the process and there is scope here to change the amount of sugar and in the choice of reserve wine.
Émilien's not a fan of over-vine sprinklers

Q: Will you be looking to produce different wines in the future eg still?
A: Champagne is known for sparkling wines, it is our history, our goal, our style is all about sparkling. I hope in a 100 years it will still be sparkling.

Q: Are you looking at England, or elsewhere?
A: I like making wine abroad. Champagne has great terroir, nice diversity, so lucky here, so I want to concentrate on Champagne. English sparkling wine is good and you don’t need a French winemaker to show you how!

Q: How do you convince new suppliers to work with you?
A: First we want to keep and work with our current growers in long-term partnerships, it takes time, takes years.

Q: Do the growers follow your guidelines?
A: There is external checking on their sustainability practices. We meet them fairly often ourselves. I go into the vineyards, close to them and sharing time and being on the ground with them is the best way.

Q: There were a few questions about going organic.
A: We are in sustainability not organic. But not a big difference between what we do now and organic, no pesticide, no herbicide. It is trickier here because of the weather (rain in particular). We are always experimenting, plenty of good things to take from different methods, but no dogma! We continue to improve sustainability with our partners.

Q: Will climate change force a shift in the boundaries of Champagne?
A: So far, no. The soil is part of it, so far we stick where we are. Again it is very long-term, as vineyards are planted for 50 years.”

For more info, see 

Okay. You take the left. I'll go right.
Previous masterclasses in this series:

A masterclass from Tuscany by wine-maker Paolo De Marchi

Monday, May 18, 2015

Miguel Torres: Message in a Bottle

Miguel Torres: Message in a Bottle

The more we care about the earth, the better our wine.

Climate change pops up in conversation and some people switch off - nothing to do with me. That’s not the way the Torres wine family see it. With the opening sentence above as motto, they are doing something about it with a programme called Torres and Earth.

Miguel Torres, one of the family’s fifth generation, was in Dublin's Westbury Hotel last week for a tasting but first he spoke of the family and the threats from climate change that it is seeing “more and more”. “Vineyards are very much at risk. Hailstorms are an example.”

Torres are well known for their concern for “the earth and its resources, not only for this generation, but also for future generations”. Climate change has heightened their concern and led to a continuing drive for improved sustainability. For instance they have devised a method of turning vine cuttings into a source of energy, are using solar panels for much the same purpose and have a 2020 target of reducing CO2 emission per bottle by 30% by comparison with 2008.
The Torres family
Fair Trade has long been a Torres concern, beginning soon after their 1979 start in Chile. Miguel explained that Fair Trade was good for their growers there and also for the company itself. If they hadn’t paid a fair price for the grapes, the children of their growers would have left for the cities as has happened elsewhere. Now, seeing their parents fairly paid for their work, enough children stay behind to ensure the future. Torres was the first private company in Chile to be designated Fair Trade.

Back to their base in Catalonia and here they have “recuperated ancient Catalan varieties, 38 in all. Not all are good but six are top quality, very well adapted to a hot and dry climate”. Torres are also experimenting with growing vines at higher levels.

And then there is the never ending problem of disease. Indeed some diseases, particularly fungal, may be due to modern machinery which are rough on the vines. I think we in Ireland have seen that in the way modern machines “batter” the roadside hedges in the process of trimming them. Miguel detailed some trunk diseases, possibly facilitated by the rough "handling" by machines, and said they were working towards a cure. Obviously others are too and he said “one treatment to cure all would be in great demand!”.

Miguel said that while Torres “have lots of vineyards, it is the people that are important. We have 1300 people, a team". The family are of course part of that team. He also said that people buying wine should rely more than the winemaker rather than the appellation. “An appellation can produce some great wines but also some terrible ones’.
Torres in Chile
 “We are very much into organic viticulture, being so aware of global warming. Today's decisions will have to be dealt with down the line.”

Torres are not interested in expanding beyond what the family can handle. “We want to continue as a family, pass it on to the next generation”. One of the benefits of this, at least in the Torres case, is that no less than 95% of profit is re-invested, much of it in research.

They are of course a Spanish family. “Penedes is our hometown and by the way, watch out for a new wine from here next year. It will be called Purgatory, not because we are sinners!”

Torres in California
He called his aunt Marimar an inspiration. She helped boost sales in the US from 1975 and now runs the 57 hectare Marimar Estate in California's Russian River valley, producing mainly Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines, all organic with a focus now on biodynamic.

“Chile is an ideal country for wine,” said Miguel. “All our vineyards, total 400 hectares, are organic.” They began here in 1979. His father and grandfather brought in the first stainless steel tanks, along with the first new oak casks in over forty years, to revolutionise the industry there. In recognition of that and their long-term commitment, the Chilean government presented Miguel A Torres with the Order of Bernardo O’Higgins in 1996.

There have also been major honours for the family in Catalonia. It seems they contribute wherever they are. The earth could do with more companies like this.

The Bottles
Frustration ran high in the Torres stronghold of Penedes in the late 70s. They were producing what they thought were great wines but where was the recognition?

Then  came the breakthrough, in Paris of all places. Torres entered their Gran Coronas Mas la Plana into the 1979 Gault-Millau blind tasting Wine Olympiad and it won, leaving wines like Chateau Latour and Chateau Haut-Brion behind. The win gave Torres the recognition it craved and the confidence to take on the world.

And from that same 29 hectares vineyard, we had the Mas la Plana 2010, a 100 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon, full of freshness, fruit and spice. Miguel said this was a great wine to celebrate its 40th anniversary - the wine that won in Paris was from 1970.
You could taste why Miguel would be proud of this one but perhaps he was just that little bit prouder of the next, the final red of the tasting. This was the Grans Muralles 2004 and the extra pride was because this was composed of Spanish varieties, including two of those “recuperated”. The two are Garró and Samsó and the other varieties are Monastrell, Garnacha Tinta and Carińena, all of them planted within the walls of this single vineyard, dating from the Middle Ages. The wine is full of character and complex. “Still young with a long life ahead”.

Before these two, I had more or less settled on the Salmos 2012, from their Priorat vineyards, as my favorite. Priorat is one of the smallest appellations and the wine is named after the psalms the original monks sang (they weren’t allowed to talk).

It is a blend from two vineyards, one at 200 metres, the other at 500 (for the Carińena). The other varieties are Garnacha Tinta and Syrah.

Carińena is becoming increasingly important and, for its contribution to colour and acidity, is being used in this particular wine in “increasing proportion and could be a key variety in the future of Priorat.” Just loved its fruit, spice and acidity, suited me very well indeed.

We had started the reds with quite a lovely Tempranillo, the Celeste 2012 from Ribera del Duero. It is made in a Rioja style but is less acidic. It is a light red yet quite complex and “delivers the fruit very well, tannins yes, but quite elegant”.

Miquel in the cellar
Then we went down to Chile for the next red, the Cordillera Carignan 2009 from the Maule Valley. By the way, Miguel advised going to the south of Chile if you do get a chance to visit. The original Carignan vineyards had been abandoned but Torres pruned them and started producing again. This is a very good example, fresh fruit and acidity, tannins, a little spice with a good finish. “Not heavy, but fresh!”

While we sampled the final white, the Jean Leon Vinya Gigi Chardonnay 2013 (Penedes), Miguel revealed that the first Chardonnay vines were “smuggled” into Penedes and, after a struggle, were eventually recognized for appellation purposes. Aromas of tropical fruit with an unctuous creamy palate and a long finish makes this a little bit special.

Another Chardonnay, from the Limari Valley in Chile, had preceded this one. It has been aged for 7 months in French oak (30% new, 70% second year). They are decreasing the oak though. “In Chile, the nicest thing you have is the fruit - no need for make-up!”, said Miguel. “We are trying to keep the acidity and freshness”. And it is fresh with good acidity, great flavor and a little spice. I think I may have a slight preference for this over the Jean Leon.


We had started with two grapes that I enjoy: Verdejo and Albarino. First up was the Verdeo 2014 from Rueda. No wood used here at all. The vintage had been “cool”. This was very aromatic and beautifully fresh.

The 2013 Albarino came from Pazo das Bruxas (bruxas means witches!) in Rias Baixas where the grape “is a key variety”. Some grapes for this come from close to the coast (for better acidity), some from a little bit inland (for the body). “You can get red apple here; it has good density and finish”. He told us that Albarino can age well, 7 or 8 years, and can get more complex. This is excellent as it is, with great freshness and flavour.

I know I've picked Salmos as a favourite but to be honest I wouldn't like to leave any of these behind me. It was a great set from Torres. So muchas gracias to Miguel for the talk and the wines and to Findlaters for bringing it all together.

Verdeo 2014 (Rueda)
Pazo das Bruxas 2013 (Rias Baixas)
Cordillera Chardonnay 2012 (Limari Valley)
Jean Leon Vinya Gigi Chardonnay 2013 (Penedes)

Celeste 2012 (Ribera del Duero)
Cordillera Carignan 2009 (Maule Valley)
Salmos 2012 (Priorat)
Mas la Plana 2010 (Penedes)
Grans Muralles 2004 (Conca de Barbera)