Bubble Trouble? Champagne Region Dips Into High-End Vodka

High-quality grapes from Champagne production used to be made into ratafia liqueur. Now French winemakers are exploring a more trendy (and Russian!) alternative.

Guillotine vodka barrels
Guillotine vodka barrels
Guillaume Roussange

A taboo has been broken in Champagne country. Traditionally, winemakers in the French area famed for its legendary bubbly have turned leftover grapes into a relatively obscure liqueur, called ratafia. But now, several producers in and around the province of Champagne in the northeast of France are turning the grapes into a more popular spirit: vodka.

Among the most recent to make the switch is Paul Berkmann, a former French television executive, who launched his own vodka in 2017, called Guillotine. His aim? To revolutionize the world of spirits by producing a premium beverage from three grape varieties of Champagne. "We have chosen these grapes for their enological quality, not as a marketing campaign," says Berkmann​.

Aging in oak barrels

The production, using neither food dye nor additives, has allowed the brand to offer the first-ever vodka aged in oak barrels. There's also another elite product, designed in partnership with Petrossian, that includes 20 grams of Oscietre caviar per liter. Already, 8,000 bottles have been shipped to the U.S.

It's a success in France too, with vodka now seen on the menus of most prestigious Parisian establishments. "The Tour d'Argent restaurant has even developed a signature dish for Guillotine, selected twice in a row as the best vodka in the world!" Berkmann boasts.​

Berkmann isn't the first to have bet on Champagne grapes. In 2013, Valentin Lefebvre and his associates paved the way in creating Cobalte, a vodka that is distilled multiple times to obtain a pure and natural product. "The majority of industrial brands are poisons. We're meeting a demand from consumers who want to drink less, but better," explains Lefebvre.

This positioning in the premium sector explains the vodka's selling price: 45 euros for a bottle of the classic edition of Guillotine, 34 euros for Cobalte and almost the same for the Veuve Capet, the third brand created in Champagne. The two founders, entrepreneurs Côme Simphal and Timothée Duguit have chosen to have fun with the brand's identity, with a visual nod in the bottles and their packaging. Presenting itself as "ultra-premium," the brand also boasts being exclusively made from Chardonnay, the region's most prestigious variety of grape.

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In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

CAUCHARI — Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.

It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park


Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

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