Champagne’s Dirty Secret

Champagne is like a polite, clean houseguest. Other wines commingle with your food, stain your teeth, then rudely leave their flavors all over your mouth. Champagne breezes in, wipes down your palate, then exits with a bubbly flourish.

Pale, bejeweled in crystal, shimmering with bubbles, it’s a “clean” beverage literally and figuratively. Its reputation is spotless as well: insulated against criticism by its glamour, blended to immunize against bad vintages, luxury-wrapped, and cross-marketed with fashion, romance, and celebrity. It does not rely on scores or notes like other wines. It is above them. It is unsullied.

Imagine my surprise, then, wandering through the vineyards of Champagne this summer, and turning up shocking amounts of… well, filth. Among the vines, I found a battery here and a pen cap there. Tinfoil, cardboard, cigarette butts, small shards of glass—all accompanied, invariably, by thousands of little shreds of blue plastic, the kind we use for recycling bags in the U.S. I found them in small artisans’ vineyards and larger-scaled plantings; it didn’t seem to matter. One vineyard after another was ridden with litter and blue confetti, as if someone had thrown a massive party and forgotten to vacuum. Were the vineyard workers so incredibly careless? Did they smoke on the job and flick butts on the ground, listen to music and toss dead batteries from their Walkmans? Naively, I brought a corroded Duracell AA over to one vigneron and wondered aloud at what I was seeing. “Oh, yes,” he responded casually. When he told me what it was, my jaw dropped.

It seems that until recently, the vineyards of Champagne were fertilized with garbage from Paris. Granted, fertilizing with refuse is not unusual. Before the advent of chemical substitutes, it was standard practice, both on commercial farms and in kitchen gardens. In fact, municipal composting on a grand scale is a concept those of us in the organic food and beverage movement would love to see make a comeback.

But this was not food scraps and lawn trimmings. It was garbage. Unsorted, inorganic, toxic trash. Facts are hard to come by, but it seems the Parisians sold their trash to Champagne as cheap fertilizer for years. The Champenois call it “les bleus de ville,” referring to the blue color of the bags it was shipped in—bags that eventually ended up in pieces all over the vineyards.

Allegedly, the practice is no longer continued. It was outlawed in 1998, when a wave of ecological reforms started washing over the French wine industry (including renewed interest in biodynamics). All the winemakers I spoke with confirmed they had not used garbage as fertilizer “in five or six years.” Still, in a Wine News article just last month by Susan Keevil, she describes the “ugly mounds filled with blue plastic rubbish sacks, used batteries, cigarette packets and other debris… possibly even heavy metal contamination” still noticeable in Champagne’s vineyards and predicts “the pollutants will certainly take some time to leach their way out of the ecosystem.” What I witnessed on my vineyard strolls in July backs her up.

So one worries. Can the vineyards of Champagne recover?

Sam Heitner at the Office of Champagne in Washington, D.C., claims they can—and in some cases already have. He believes the attitude toward the environment in Champagne has undergone a massive shift, in large part because the French are starting to realize their vineyards are a valuable natural resource. “Every time I go back, I see and hear about more estates going organic,” he told me in a phone interview last week. That movement has included a clean-up of existing pollutants, as well as the avoidance of new ones. “They’re coming to realize that Champagne is a very special terroir.”

Some change is coming from the producers themselves; some has had to be mandated from the top down. A February article by Rupert Joy in the British wine magazine Decanter reports that in 2001-2003, in an effort to reduce carbon dioxide emissions throughout Champagne “…the CIVC (Comité Interprofessionel du Vin de Champagne) carried out an extensive analysis of the environmental impact of Champagne production, from initial clearing of vineyard land through to bottling. A series of guides on reducing pesticides and other treatments, and managing waste and winery effluents were sent out to Champagne’s 15,000 producers.”

What the growers have chosen to do with that report has been voluntary thus far. But such research is clearly being driven by the European Union, which means legislation is likely coming soon, not just to Champagne but to many wine regions, on CO2, pollution, chemical fertilizers, and similar problems. One Champagne producer I spoke with is experimenting with growing cover crops like grass between his vine rows in anticipation of the coming laws. “It will be compulsory in five years anyway,” he shrugged. Better the grass he can control than the weeds he can’t.

To be realistic, it must be stated that Champagne will probably never be a bastion of organic viticulture. The vagaries of the weather and thinness of the topsoil there make vine-growing without some sort of human help impossible. Biodynamics is almost out of the question (although four or five intrepid producers are pursuing it with seeming success, so maybe I’m being a naysayer). Still, there are degrees of help and degrees of hurt. The elimination of a nasty process like composting with inorganic garbage is a decidedly helpful move. If the vignerons can find nontoxic, ecologically sustainable ways of replacing it as fertilizer, that is surely a large step toward healthier vineyards—and, most important, toward the production of better wines.

{While the conditions mentioned in this article are already familiar to many in the wine industry, newcomers to the organic wine world should be interested to learn about these previous practices and their lasting effects.}


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