Preserving Moët & Chandon’s Precious Terroir
How Moet & Chandon’s Marie-Christine Osselin is upholding one of Champagne’s biggest names.
Although it is arguably the most recognisable name in the gilded province of Champagne, Moët & Chandon still must face the challenges of climate change and soil degradation troubling the region. Robb Report spoke with Marie-Christine Osselin, a talented winemaker and Moët & Chandon’s wine quality manager on what it takes to keep the wine, vineyards, and the region, in good health for centuries to come.
Robb Report: I understand after drought in France, 2020 saw the earliest champagne harvest on record. Can champagne harvest dates mark the creep of climate change?
Marie-Christine Osselin: It is clear that climate change is a reality and has an impact on quality in our champagnes. We have data on climate and temperature going back to the 1940s and we’ve looked at ten-year averages and clearly see a curve. From 1940 to 1988 the sugar’s levels decreased, but since 1988 the opposite is true.
The heat along with unusually dry weather has affected the evolution of ripeness in the grapes. Last year, we experienced the earliest harvest on record in the history of Champagne, with the first snip of grape picking made on August 17th, in the Aube region. It’s now faster than in the past, at harvest time, we have to deal with these elements and make the best decisions we can.
We don’t know about the future, but every year we learn from nature and we adapt. We need to be flexible and focused on the quality of the grapes, and the wines.
RR: What does an early harvest do to the flavour of the champagne – what would an ideal harvest look like versus what is actually happening?
MO: Last year, nature demanded all stakeholders to adapt to a very unusual, precocious and extreme harvest. Having an early harvest doesn’t necessarily mean negative impacts on the quality of our grapes…quite the opposite!
In the Champagne region, every harvest is unique. It’s the culmination of 12 months of meticulous care to the vineyards, watching and listening to nature closely, observing soil life carefully and monitoring the singular climate of that year. Some of the most difficult seasons can actually result in terrific harvests, followed by spectacular vintage champagnes.
RR: Do you think climate change is the biggest challenge facing Champagne right now, if not what is?
Climate change is definitely one of the biggest challenges the Champagne region is currently facing. But I believe in the medium and long-term, we will need to evaluate the consequences and benefits of the big change of sustainable viticulture, on the soil as well as on the grapes after many decades during which nature had accustomed herself to products no longer in use.
RR: You and the team are working hard to preserve the region’s terroir – what makes it special and what is placing it at risk?
MO: The exceptional quality of Moët & Chandon’s champagnes owes much to the combination of precious soil that nurtures its grapevines, particularly the climate and selection of vines. The house’s commitment to preserving that natural environment through sustainable practices is an integral part of our quest for excellence.
[We are] also working closely with a community of 2,000 grape growers and local partners to benefit the biodiversity of the entire region.
It is the house’s immediate goal is to help the community of suppliers to obtain the same certifications so that together, Champagne’s exceptional terroir may be preserved for all.
RR: What measures are taken across Moët & Chandon to ensure that the product is made sustainably and fights against the effects of climate change?
MO: On top of being doubly certified for sustainable viticulture and of helping the community of suppliers to obtain the same certifications, Moët & Chandon has reduced – in the last decade – by 98% the use of herbicides in its own vineyards. Last year, we announced our voluntary decision to make our viticulture entirely herbicide-free by year-end.
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.
Today, we recycle 99 per cent of our waste and uses 100% green electricity, which together contributes to reducing our carbon footprint not just throughout the region, but also well beyond Champagne.
RR With the ongoing effects of Covid-19 still being felt across Europe – what impact has that had on production?
MO: 2020 was surely an unprecedented year. While we all respected the safety regulations imposed by governments and stayed home for quite some time, the vines of Champagne did not experience the Covid-19 crisis, so they continued to grow and develop as usual.
The harvest of 2020 was also an unprecedented experience: for the first time in the history of harvests, the sanitary crisis forced our house to respect strict health and safety measures: wearing of a mask was mandatory, one picker per row in the vineyards, temperature controls for each worker, meals distributed directly in the vineyards, a space of four square metres allocated for each worker staying on-site and all pickers were coming exclusively from the Champagne region.
RR: Is there a push for new products in order for Champagne to stay current or appeal to a new audience, is there a need for the product to reinvent itself
MO: Companies do not thrive on being inert; they must adapt to their time, anticipate new trends, and even create future opportunities. If Moët & Chandon has thrived since the 18th century, it is thanks to its ability to maintain a competitive edge and a disruptive vision.
Some of the latest examples of this vanguard and contemporary attitude have been the launch of Moët & Chandon Ice Impérial in 2011, the release of our ultra-prestige champagne MCIII in 2015.
Having that “15 minutes of lead time” in today’s competitive luxury market is what has placed Moët & Chandon in the vanguard of innovation. It is what make M&C a market leader today.
RR: What is being done as an industry and at Moët & Chandon to ensure Champagne can continue for the next 10 – 20 – 100 years?
As the owner of the largest estate in Champagne today, Moët & Chandon strives to fulfil its responsibility to care for its precious terroir and to preserve it for future generations.
For 277 years, Moët & Chandon has applied a relentless drive for innovation to produce the house’s exceptional champagnes. In 2012 Moët & Chandon inaugurated Mont-Aigu winery, a new space dedicated to winemaking that became France’s first site awarded with the label of “High Environmental Quality,” and serves as an ultra-modern “cuverie”.
And as we don’t forget our past, the historical wineries in Epernay are currently being renovated to have the same level of technology and modernity as Mont-Aigu.
With its high-tech capacities, Mont-Aigu was built as a bridge between the cellars of the past and the tools of the future, enabling Moët & Chandon to pursue its tradition of excellence in winemaking for years to come.