Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Rivalry and angst in Champagne expands

The news that the Champagne appellation area is to be extended has unleashed a torrent of anticipation and anxiety among local vintners. Converting a field of corn into a Champagne vineyard multiplies its price by a satisfying 350.
Yves Bénard, who presides the wines and spirits committee of the Institut national de l’origine et de la qualité – INAO – announced the extra communes now permitted to plant Champagne grapes. The current 319 villages are to be increased to 357. Two communes will lose their growing rights. The exact parcels will not be clear until 2015, when all the hearings and legal appeals are over.
Lawyers in the region are sharpening their wits for what will inevitably be a fantastic legal punch-up. Landowners who find that the new boundaries fall just outside their property will try to get them adjusted in their favour. Farmland sells at E5,000 a hectare whereas a hectare of AOC vineyard has been known to change hands recently at more than a million euros. The justification for each new parcel must be based on the most learned geological and oenological research. The land must have the necessary chalky or clay-chalk subsoils. It will take more than weighty scientific evidence to convince the disappointed that they not been robbed by their neighbours.
Philippe Wibrotte, director of the Comité Interprofessionnel des vins de Champagne (CIVC), told French News that the aim is to up production to meet steadily growing demand. Champagne is the highest selling French wine. Exports broke records again in 2007 with 150.9 million bottles sold in 190 countries. The quantity of grapes permitted per hectare was recently increased from 13,000kg to 15,500kg. Since 1927, when the present system was set up, there have been 33,500 hectares round Reims and Épernay in the Marne but with 25% of Champagne actually produced in the next door département of the Aube, near Troyes, and some in the Aisne and the Haute-Marne.
Wibrotte admits that the corks of the new Champagnes will not be popped until 2021 at the earliest, by which time the world economy may be totally different, so the initiative is something of a leap in the dark.
However, he stresses that the increase in area is also intended to pre-empt individual villages following the example of Fontenay-sur-Ay which individually won the right to produce Champagne in 1995 after a legal battle lasting 13 years. He is also keen to emphasise that the extension will in no way be at the expense of quality.
Champagne and legal strife go hand in hand. Wibrotte’s CIVC is eternally vigilant in defending the brand name. It was even guaranteed in the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I. In 2002 they succeeded in stopping the Swiss village of Champagne in the Vaud (pop. 660), calling their local wine by the village name. More seriously, in 1994 and 1995, they defeated an attempt by American sparkling wine producers to have the name declared semi-generic worldwide. This would have meant the name had no geographical significance and was merely a type of sparkling wine, which could be produced anywhere by the tanker load. Champagne lovers throughout the world heaved a sigh of relief when this challenge was defeated.
Similarly, the Yves-Saint-Laurent perfume house has had to change its brand name Champagne to Yvresse. The two villages thought to be scheduled to lose their AOC status are unlikely to accept being dropped from this exclusive and uniquely profitable club without a fight.
The British drink more than any other country – 39 million bottles last year. Now the trend towards global warming could lead to competition in production from across the Channel as well, where suitable subsoils exist. Pancho Campos, president of the wine academy of Spain, speaking at a recent conference in Barcelona on wine production and climate change, said some French Champagne houses have already bought farmland in Sussex and Kent, just in case.

French News