The wine and champagne industry’s future remains uncertain as global warming threatens vineyards and the impact of climate change has been visible for years. Since 2003, the harvesting has taken place five times in the month of August. Prior to this, it had only happened once in history. According to Frédéric Panaïotis, Ruinart’s Cellar Master, the harvesting period is becoming increasingly unpredictable to track. This year, Ruinart estimated their harvest to start from the 19th of September. In August, they realized that the heatwaves in the summer had accelerated the maturation process and instead, the estimated starting date became the expiry date. It’s a common pattern in the industry — weather changes are becoming increasingly difficult to track and crops are getting spoilt in the process. Colder temperature leave grapes unripe: high in acidity, low sugar and bitter flavors. In contrast, if the grapes are exposed to too much sun, they mature and the acidity sinks below preference, resulting in high alcohol content and cooked flavors. The area of Champagne has been affected: summers are warmer, winters are unpredictable, vines start to grow sooner but are halted by unforeseen spring frost. Meanwhile last-minute heatwaves threatens to dry-up the remaining crop. It’s a long production process so the changes must be anticipated. Climate change is here, it’s accelerating — the clock is ticking. Timing is everything and changes will only increase in the years to come.
Artistic duo, Mouawad Laurier — Maya Mouawad and Cyril Laurier — made it a point to enhance the feeling of being in Ruinart’s underground chalk cellars by producing an installation here. A metal structure referencing a vine’s roots was built and artificial intelligence was embedded into its system. The installation is fed with data gathered from the vineyards in real time, expressing changes in season, climate, wind and temperature, as well as the phases in winemaking (it nods to Olafur Eliasson’s Ice Watch from 2014 where twelve blocks of Greenlandic glacial ice were brought to a Place du Panthèon in Paris, offering spectators the opportunity to see and feel the experience of climate change).
A timeline was coded by Mouawad Laurier. It generates sound and light effects according to the data received, resulting in an installation that changes every time it is experienced. During one trial, it begins with a dark sound — a machine being reignited after years of deactivation. A clock starts ticking, it accelerates. Points of lights begin to appear, they blink to the rhythm of the clock, arising in different ends of the room as stars on a night sky. New sounds emerge: this time, they are optimistic. The installation lights up for a split moment, revealing a symmetric structure with bulbs hanging down — like rain drops, only larger. The bulbs are placed inside glass structures from Murano, crafted to represent the minerals and water that feed the root. Textures allow the light to reflect onto the chalk walls with different patterns: one mimics the effects of light underneath the sea, giving an idea of what the cellars looked like in the past. The ticking clock is interrupted by the arrival of a calming melody. One of the light bulbs responds to the changing attitude by rising to the top of the cellar with wave-like effects reflected onto the walls. It could represent the data provided from sunrise or a downpour. In either case, the message is clear: if this is a representation of data collected from nature, then nature is changing faster than we can keep up with.
Chardonnay is the second most planted grape variety after Pinot Noir, described to embody floral notes and spices like ginger and cardamom. You’ll find it in the east and south-east villages in Montagne de Reims, France where the Ruinart vineyards are located. Vines are aligned in rows spread one meter apart: in the process of harvesting, it allows for two people to tackle the same vine — one in front of the other but slightly off centre to avoid any scissor accidents. The clusters of grapes are tightly spun to the vines —meaning, that cutting them without bursting the ripe fruits becomes a challenge and a matter of technique. It is a labour that is carried out by seasonal workers who travel to the Champagne vineyards as soon as the harvesting period is announced. This usually happens at the end of summer, but changing temperatures has made this more difficult to predict.
The first graphic representation of champagne is present in “Le Déjeuner d’huîtres” by Jean-François de Troy from 1735. It was commissioned by King Louis XV — a fan of sparkling wines and champagne — for the castle of Versailles. Streams of bubbles, foam in champagne coupes, ice buckets and a wooden cork flying over the aristocracy indicates that the drink enjoyed is not wine. At this time, champagne was a new invention. Only three houses existed and the product depicted was most likely, Ruinart. Champagne making was a hobby and bottles were gifted to selected clients. It became a business when Nicholas Ruinart, received an inheritance from his uncle, the Benedictine monk Dom Thierry Ruinart, and the vision to venture into a business inspired by the presumed lifestyle changes led by the aristocracy. Cellars once filled by an ocean. It’s hard to think that a site located meters beneath the ground can be light in color, but centuries of sedimentation turned the ocean space into white crayère chalk; a material that was later dug up and used as building material for the city of Reims. When the cellars were found, they were hollow. The Ruinart family decided to connect them, carving stairs out of the remaining chalk and forming an eight kilometers underground path. To this day, they are used to store bottled champagne at 12 degrees Celsius and 90-100% air humidity.
A preference for bubbles over bordeaux. Established on September 1st 1729 by a family of art collectors and textile traders, today Ruinart is ten years away from celebrating its 300th anniversary. In honor of this, a commitment to its past of art patronage has been made. This includes engagement with fairs and cultural institutions; a prize at Paris Photo; and the commissioning of artistic or architectural projects in Reims through the notion of environmentalism.
Ruinart wants to become the most responsible champagne house in terms of social and environmental issues and it has an ambitious goal: to reduce 75% of its carbon emissions by 2050. But action is not a matter of effort, it is a matter of a conscious mindset that extends through the production cycle as a gesture rather than a strategy. Packaging are made out of recycled materials, tractors on the vineyards run on electricity and drones are used to minimize pesticide usage. Meanwhile, trees are planted to make up for carbon emissions released during transportation — by boat, not airplane. Beyond this, everything is judged on a case by case basis. The installation, produced by Mouawad Laurier, was produced and assembled in Reims.