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Cognac producers combat climate change

Climate change is having a noticeable effect on Cognac as untimely frosts and freak hailstorms batter the region. The Spirits Business delves into what producers are doing to tackle Mother Nature’s unpredictability..

Photo credit: BNIC/ Benoit Linero

Extinction Rebellion threw London into chaos in April as climate change protesters staged lengthy demonstrations. Commuters throughout the capital faced upheaval as activists set up camp at central locations including Oxford Circus and Marble Arch, while others closed Waterloo Bridge or glued themselves to public transport and buildings.

Campaigners set out three objectives as the catalyst for their actions: for the government to “tell the truth” about climate change by declaring a climate and ecological emergency; to stop biodiversity loss and cut greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2025; and to create a ‘citizens’ assembly’ to oversee the progress.

It wasn’t just London affected by the movement, either. This was a worldwide revolt that stretched from Ireland to India, Japan, Ghana and beyond; a call to arms about the need to act quickly to combat climate change, or risk a dangerous future for the following generations.

One of the most revered voices regarding wildlife and the environment, Sir David Attenborough, made no qualms about highlighting the significant threat presented by climate change in his latest BBC documentary programme, Climate Change – The Facts. “It may sound frightening,” he said, “but the scientific evidence is that if we have not taken dramatic action within the next decade, we could face irreversible damage to the natural world, and the collapse of our societies.”

Cognac has felt the impact of climate change in recent years. Severe storms in 2016 inflicted much damage to the French region, affecting up to 6,000 hectares of vineyards. The hailstones, wind and rain resulted in a loss of harvest, meaning significantly lower yields for several producers.

Cognac house Courvoisier

A fresh wave of freak storms tore through the region in May 2018, affecting more than 10,000ha of Cognac to varying degrees. The majority of the hail fell in the south of Charente-Maritime, the Borderies, the west of Matha and the Rouillac area, according to Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac (BNIC), which estimated that 3,500ha of vineyards lost 80% of their vines.

“All of us are now witnessing the extreme and violent results of climate change,” says Jérôme Durand, managing director of Cognac Larsen. “It is now a major factor in producing Cognac.” Augustin Depardon, Rémy Martin’s global executive director, admits “we were all affected” by the hail, and the Cognac house’s “productivity has been slowed quite considerably because of the hail and harsh conditions. We are definitely experiencing pressure on supplies because of weather conditions and the appellation d’origine contrôlée [AOC],” he says.

Several measures are being trialled to prepare the region for any sudden adverse weather conditions that could arise in the future. “Tools to fight against hail in the vineyard have been developed and tested over the Cognac appellation, and are today being spread across the vineyards to reinforce the fight against extreme conditions,” says Catherine Le Page, director of trade body the BNIC. “In addition, anti-hail netting is authorised for vineyards with geographical indications, such as Cognac. Experiments have been under way since 2019 over 10 properties.”

Cold snaps, hot spells

Extreme cold snaps and hot spells are also posing problems for producers. A spring frost settled on the Cognac region in 2017, again destroying a substantial share of the year’s harvest. “Frost is problematic more frequently than hailstorms,” says Patrice Pinet, Courvoisier master blender. “Hailstorms always affect a very small area, but in 2017 about 25% of the Cognac area was hit by frost.”

Cognac producers are also looking to other wine-producing regions for inspiration about how to fight frost. One idea that is being considered for Cognac is the use of propellers or wind machines, similar to those found in California, designed to curb the threat of cold weather conditions.

Meanwhile, at the opposite end of the spectrum, warmer weather is accelerating the growth rate of grapes, meaning the fruit is at risk of losing its acidity and increasing its sugar content.

Cognac casks maturing at Frapin

David Baker, managing director of Brandy Classics and Hermitage Cognacs, explains: “In Japan, winegrowers have created paper hats to sit on top of the bunch of grapes with cool air blowers to help reduce the heat. In New Zealand scientists are studying the effects of carbon emissions during the fermentation process, which they claim is five times more concentrated than planes and cars. The production of high-quality grapes is fundamental to all in the Cognac industry.”

To protect quality standards from the heat, producers are more frequently having to harvest earlier in order to prevent over-ripening. “If you look at our harvest, this is something we have adapted to and moved forward by roughly one month compared with 30 years ago,” says Depardon. “We harvested in mid-October about 30 years ago; in 2018 we had to harvest on 11 September.”

Similar actions are being taken across the category as farmers gamble between risking rotten grapes if the rainy season starts early, or to cut their losses and harvest ahead of schedule. “There’s no clear-cut decision. You have to check your heart and head, and decide what you want to do,” says Alexandre Gabriel, owner of Maison Ferrand. “The way climate change is going, the swings between hot and cold are more pronounced; that’s my observation.”

Climate reserve

In an effort to mitigate the effects of any harvest shortfalls among winegrowers who did not reach regulatory annual yields due to unforeseen weather conditions, the BNIC introduced the Réserve Climatique (climate reserve) in 2008. This permits distillers and farmers to store a limited quantity – up to seven hectolitres per hectare – of pure alcohol in stainless steel vats in case of poor harvests. This stock can then be used to boost production levels in years where yields are lower. “It’s a farmer-friendly way of operating; it’s like insurance,” says Gabriel, who is in full support of the initiative. “It’s working perfectly for Cognac.”

Exploration of grape varieties and their resistance to climatic conditions – as well as diseases – is another key area of focus to ensure Cognac is protected for future generations. Since the 2000s, the category has been working in partnership with the INRA (the French National Institute for Agricultural Research), Europe’s top agricultural research institute, to create and select resistant grape varieties in line with the expectations of Cognac.

The technical and scientific arm of the BNIC, the Station Viticole, has been involved in vineyard development working on rootstocks, grape varieties, management and protection of the Cognac category. The new grape varieties were planted in 2017 over three parts of one hectare of land, and are now being put to the test and turned into wine. The test phases will end in 2022 and 2023, and if successful, the next stage will be registration, ratification and expansion.

Adapting techniques

“The category started research on resistant grape varieties a few years ago to adapt our winegrowing techniques more towards a collective progress approach,” says BNIC’s Le Page. “By selecting the latest grape varieties, while also being resistant – that is to say more acidic and less sweet – we can compensate for the effect of climate change while maintaining the specificities of Cognac.

Ideally, we would like to have varieties of vines that are resistant to rot and mildew, and adaptive to climate change while producing good wines for distillation.” The risk of extreme weather is not deterring producers from innovating and experimenting with grape varieties outside of environmental research purposes.

Producers are experimenting with grape varieties

At Maison Ferrand, Cognac production consists almost entirely of Ugni Blanc grapes. But Ferrand has been gradually increasing its use of Colombard grapes over the past decade to add an extra layer of flavour complexity.

“Colombard adds a nice intense floral note to Cognac, but the problem is that it is more affected by frost and gives smaller yields,” says Gabriel. “But we think it’s worth it. Colombard cannot be planted in valleys; it has to be on hilltops or hillsides because in the valley you are more exposed to frost.”

Colombard grapes are harvested earlier than Ugni Blanc because of this hazard, which is made all the more tricky to predict thanks to the erratic weather conditions from one year to the next. “We are sticking our neck out with Colombard, to tell the truth,” Gabriel admits.

“It’s a financial risk, but we are willing to take that risk for the sake of great-tasting Cognac – the reality is some years we could lose all of our Colombard harvest.”

Seeking advancements

Thankfully, the maturation process inside warehouses is largely unaffected by the extremities occurring in the outside world. Cognac warehouse temperatures tend to only fluctuate by a couple of degrees Celsius from summer to winter, but advancements in temperature and humidity controls are being sought, nonetheless. “At Courvoisier, we are implementing tools to maintain humidity in our cellars,” says Pinet. “When the warehouse is full of Cognac you don’t have a big variation in temperature. For us, humidity is more important than temperature, so we want to control the percentage of humidity.”

As research and testing progresses, Cognac must be ready to embrace new findings and adaptations to safeguard a prosperous future. For now, there is next to no support for changing the Cognac crus or the rules that govern the category due to climatic changes. However, for Cognac to survive for centuries to come, the planet needs more than a handful of eco-warriors. It needs a global revolution.

Will climate change cause a Cognac shortage?

“It is always bad news when storms and frost occur in the area, but at Cognac Frapin we can face it thanks to a stock of Grande Champagne Cognac,” says Patrice Piveteau, Frapin’s cellar master.

“In 2016, we lost one part of the vineyard (around 40ha of the 240ha we have in Grande Champagne), but despite this problem the harvest has been correct. In 2018, we were lucky because we were not hit by hailstorms. It was an exceptional year for us concerning quantity and quality.

“We are adapting techniques to face climate change, but we do not use new grape varieties. Tomorrow it could be different with new grape varieties that could be more resilient to climate change. It could be an option.”

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