Life Style

Climate change shakes up the recipe at Champagne’s oldest maker

Winemakers around the world have in recent years faced unrelenting extreme weather. Killer frosts, sustained record heat, devastating floods and rampant wildfires are not new, but they now appear in annual vintage reports with alarming regularity, thanks to the effects of climate change.

Aside from these immediate crises, climate change poses an existential dilemma for vignerons. If their wines are defined by specific blends of limited grape varieties — as in much of Europe’s appellation systems — then rising average temperatures and shortened growing seasons will result in riper, more alcoholic wines. But if the wine is defined by a flavor profile, winemakers may need to change the recipe by using different grapes. I’ve written here about Bordeaux’s decision to allow cultivation of nontraditional grapes and Burgundy’s efforts to identify specific clones of its signature pinot noir that show an ability to adapt to the changing weather.

Now Champagne Ruinart, the oldest of the region’s venerable houses, has released its first new cuvée in decades. Called Blanc Singulier, the all-chardonnay wine stands as a contrast to Ruinart’s signature blanc de blancs as the winery embraces unusual vintages for a new style of champagne. Lemonade from lemons, as it were.

Champagne, a short drive east of Paris, is France’s northernmost wine region. It lies just below the 50th parallel latitude, traditionally considered the northern limit of wine growing, though climate change is challenging that boundary. The climate has always been harsh, with cool temperatures and rain possible throughout the growing season. It’s a tough climate for ripening grapes for still wines, but sparkling wine favors grapes with less ripeness and higher acidity. The region’s landscape helps with rolling hills, rivers and canals that create sheltered pockets of land where vineyards can thrive.

Ruinart, founded in 1729, is known for its blanc de blancs, a rosé and its tête de cuvée, called Dom Ruinart. Ruinart wines are delicate, showcasing citrus flavors and a fine filigree texture that exudes elegance. The Singulier is rather different — full-bodied, ripe and rich. This new wine grew out of chief winemaker Frédéric Panaiotis’ observations while blending the wines in unusual vintages.

“The 2015 vintage was unusually dry, and we were discussing how that affected the grapes,” Panaiotis told me in a recent interview over Zoom. “Our blanc de blancs style is based on aromatic freshness, but we wondered how we could guarantee that in the future.”

Champagne is based on consistency, in a region where climate is anything but. To compensate for vintage variation, wineries maintain a reserve of wines from previous years that can be blended into a particular vintage’s wine to create a house style. That’s why most sparkling wine is not vintage-dated, and it’s why you can count on your favorite champagne to be consistently delicious year in and year out.

But Panaiotis found that increasingly frequent warmer vintages yielded more base wines that were too ripe for Ruinart’s signature style. With the 2016 vintage, he created a new permanent reserve of chardonnay wines. In a departure from Ruinart’s style, he aged half of the reserve in oak barrels instead of the stainless steel vats used to ferment and age the base wines for the blanc de blancs.

“We thought we could play with tension using structure from the oak rather than freshness and acidity,” he explained.

The next year, Panaiotis and his team made a small amount of Singulier Edition 17, which Ruinart is selling at the winery. Singulier Edition 18 was released to limited distribution in the United States this summer, primarily to restaurants. (Each “edition” contains 80 percent of wine from that vintage and 20 percent from the new permanent reserve. The wine is 100 percent chardonnay.)

“For this concept, 2018 was a perfect year,” Panaiotis said. Champagne set new records that summer for sunshine and days over 30 degrees Celsius. “In 2018, the climate in Champagne was similar to Châteauneuf-du-Pape 40 years ago,” he said, referring to the southern region known for powerful red wines. “Temperature, hours of sunshine, potential alcohol are data that show us climate change is real.”

Grapes are sensitive to heat. “Sugars go up and acidity goes down very fast, making the decision of when to harvest more difficult,” Panaiotis explained. “Winemakers around the world all face this same issue.”

How does this translate to the wines? “The aromatic profiles are different,” Panaiotis said. “The blanc de blancs is very citrusy and floral, with a soft mouthfeel. The Singulier 18 is less fresh, with dried fruit, honey and dried flowers and herbs. It’s bone-dry, but there’s great roundness from ripeness and a savory character from extended aging and maybe from the oak. It’s a gastronomic wine.”

Along with several dozen lucky diners, I enjoyed the Singulier Editions 17 and 18 alongside the blanc de blancs at a recent dinner at Bresca restaurant in Washington, D.C., sponsored by LVMH, Ruinart’s parent company. The Singulier is not the biggest, boldest champagne (Krug and Bollinger typify that style), but the difference from Ruinart’s signature wine was striking. The new wine embraced the warmth of those vintages, and we were tasting climate change.

Ruinart now has Singulier editions 19, 20 and 22 aging on their lees in the house’s famous chalk cellars below the city of Reims. (If you visit Champagne, be sure to schedule a tour to one of the classic champagne houses with these cellars, known as crayères, carved centuries ago by the Romans.) Since developing the Singulier concept, only 2021 has been too cool to produce this new cuvée. Champagne’s climate has changed so that — for now at least — such traditional vintages have now become the exception rather than the norm.

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