As temperatures climb, is the future of French wine in England?

MAR 10, 2024 LISTEN

As climate change threatens France, the world's largest wine producer, winemakers are looking to innovate. One solution, particularly for champagne producers, is to invest in countries with cooler weather – including the United Kingdom.

Wine might not top the list of climate concerns. 
But vines are among the crops most immediately vulnerable to events such as wildfires, water shortages, hail and frost. 

Already, hot winters followed by unseasonably cold springs are upsetting the delicate balance of wine production in France.

Grapes grown on century-old vines are ripening weeks earlier than they did in the 1980s. In the south, fruits are getting smaller. In other regions, winemakers wake up before dawn to light hundreds of candles to thaw frosts that kill early buds.

And some producers have their eyes on land in unconventional areas like Britain, Belgium and the Netherlands. 

Rise of English viticulture 

While all regions in France are affected by rising temperatures, Champagne is one of the hardest hit, according to a 2023 study by international viticulture expert group Giesco.

England's south-east has similar temperatures as Champagne did 30 years ago, with the same chalky soil. Ideal conditions for the chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier grapes that go into the famous sparkling wine could make it a future epicentre of production. 

French winemakers are buying up land there in a bid to stay one step ahead of climate change.

The Pommery champagne house began working with winemakers in Hampshire in 2014 to produce English sparkling wines, and has since planted its own vines in the southern county. In 2015, Taittinger acquired around 70 hectares in Kent.

In a statement, the champagne house's president, Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger, said: "Our aim is to make something of real excellence in the UK's increasingly temperate climate and not to compare it with champagne or any other sparkling wine." 

Unique region

There's no question of abandoning the legendary Champagne region, at least for now. 

Jean-Marc Touzard, director of research at Inrae, a French public research institute dedicated to agricultural science, told RFI: "Production conditions in Champagne remain favourable until 2050, even if changes are coming."

By investing in the UK, he added, French winemakers are not necessarily seeking to weather climate change so much as diversify their portfolio and tap into the local market.

Philippe Schaus, chief executive of Moët Hennessy, told The Telegraph in late 2022 that nowhere could replace the Champagne region.

"Champagne is not just about average temperatures. The soil is very particular. The craftsmanship is very, very particular."

Strict winemaking rules

French production rules mean that only wines made and bottled within strict geographic limits have the right to the champagne name

The same rules, set by France's National Institute of Origin and Quality (Inao), also determine which grape varieties winemakers can include and how they're cultivated.

Producers have complained that the regulations make it harder for them to experiment with new techniques, which they say are urgently needed to adapt to changing weather patterns.

Touzard says that Inao has announced the possibility of introducing new grape varieties to test their viability under climate change.

But he cautions that deviating from time-honoured techniques may cut "the links to the terroir and the local conditions of production that created the value and narratives of wines". 

Terroir is a French term describing the unique ecosystem that collectively builds a wine's character.

Taste of climate change

The owners of Moët & Chandon have called for the regulations to be loosened, arguing that France imposes tighter quality standards than Italy or Germany.

The champagne house has set up research units to test new technologies and production methods. 

"Present day traditions are not sustainable in the long term and it would be unwise to let them reach breaking point," Vincent Malherbe, head of vineyards at the LVMH group that owns Moët & Chandon, told Polytechnique Insights in a 2021 interview.

"We must progress in order to maintain the style and quality of our wines."

A warming climate is already increasing the alcohol content of grapes, while reducing acidity and bringing out unexpected aromas.

Even so, Malherbe said, swapping north-east France for southern England was not on the agenda. 

"Vineyards in the Champagne region have a bright and sunny future ahead of them," he insisted.

"The solution lies in innovating in accordance with our traditions."

(with newswires)