Organic Champagne making a slow fizz

AFP Jan 7 2018, 00:16 IST
Eric Rodez, organic winemaker in Champagne, pours some of his vintage champagne in a glass in the vat room, of his champagne house in Ambonnay on December 20, 2017. More and more vine growers turn their backs on phytosanitary products, and want to develop organic champagnes in order to reveal the typicality of the terroir. But it's still a marginal movement since only 1.9 % of the vineyard of the appellation is labeled organic. / AFP PHOTO / FRANCOIS NASCIMBENI

A bubble it is not: the organic movement is only slowly taking root in France's Champagne region, although its proponents believe environmentally friendly techniques can help the sparkling wine express even finer subtleties.

Organic farming has experienced a boom in recent years, in France, too, where the wine industry has been keen to adopt practices that shun synthetic chemicals and fertilisers.

If 5% of all agricultural land in France was being organically farmed or in the process of conversion in 2015, the figure was 8.7% for the wine sector, according to data from the public-private agency that promotes "green" farming in France.

But there are regional disparities, and the Champagne region is trailing with just 1.9 % under organic production, even if the amount of land there carrying an "Agence Bio" (or AB) certification increased by 14% between 2015 and 2017.

Organic farming is not for those looking to make a quick buck or jump on the latest bandwagon."If you're just looking to put a pretty seal on your label, you'll be disappointed very quickly," said Pascal Doquet, president of the association of organic Champagnes.

Doquet said he spent "six years between the beginning of the conversion process and the first sale of bottles" bearing the AB seal. The slow maturation of Champagne, an element of its quality and the cachet which allows the wines to command premium prices, is a disadvantage when going green.

Converting the land to organic farming is a three-year process. Then, there is the requirement that Champagne must mature in bottles for at least 15 months, with many makers leaving it even longer. Another crucial element is climate, which needs to be cool with little sunshine to help the grapes mature slowly.

And dampness is also a challenge, especially as organic farming sharply limits which treatments can be used.

For many practitioners, organic is as much a philosophy as a process.

Doquet said he has had to become a "real farmer," cultivating the vine's "capacity for resistance", while other winemakers were mere "technicians".

The respect for the environment that underpins the organic movement's philosophy fits in with the French concept of terroir, where soil, topography and climate all combine to influence the taste of the wine.

Less invasive farming techniques can therefore help produce wines that better reflect the nuances of their environment, or "make the terroir sing," as Eric Rodez, head of a family winery at Ambonnay in the Marne Valley, puts it.

It was a much more "demanding" way of wine-making, "living life by the rhythm of nature, not the clock of the world," he argues.

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