Monday, June 16, 2008

Grape growers bubbly over expansion

MAGNEUX, France - Jean-Michel Petit, a third-generation beet farmer in this village, yearns to trade his earthy roots for the sparkle of Champagne.

more stories like this"I'd plant the maximum amount of grapevines if I could," Petit said, beaming at the prospect of tender pinot noir vines lining the chalky soil of his farm in northeastern France.

Petit and the roughly 200 inhabitants of Magneux are part of an eager group of outsiders pressing to join the elite growers of the $7 billion Champagne industry.

A nearly eight-decade-old rule that delineates the official Champagne zone is about to be changed to include new territory, potentially allowing farmers like Petit to sell grapes for Champagne with the French seal of approval, the "Appellation d'Origine Controlee," or AOC.

Traditionally, Champagne could be grown only in a part of the Champagne region.

But with global demand for sparkling wine soaring, putting pressure on limited supplies, the French authorities are opening what could be the largest wave of expansion of Champagne vineyards in nearly a century. Potentially, the expansion could increase annual production by 100 million bottles, to 430 million.

The major Champagne houses support the expansion plan, which is in its appeals stage until Friday. Without more vineyards, they fear customers could revolt against rising Champagne prices, edging above $35 for nonvintage bottles of Moet & Chandon and $40 for Veuve Clicquot in the United States.

The current Champagne growing region encompasses a patchwork of territory sprawling over 87,000 acres, in 319 villages. In March, a team of experts appointed by the French government approved more than 40 more communes, or communities, to add to the Champagne territory, zones that are now the subject of final appeals.

In preparation, some major Champagne houses, which buy most of their grapes from independent growers, are quietly scouting for fresh land, according to people in the industry who did not want to be identified because the government experts had not finished with the appeals period. Companies do not want to discuss possible land purchases for the same reasons.

The same cannot be said for the region's villages, especially those passed over by French authorities - like Magneux. Quiet jockeying to join the club is still taking place, even though the appeals period closes in less than a week.

Magneux was one of a collection of about eight communities that joined together to hire four students to prepare a dossier exploring the history, climate, geography, and soil of the area, along with records showing that pinot noir grapes were actually grown there before the last Champagne designation was imposed in 1927.

Jean-Pierre Pinon, mayor of Fismes, helped to organize Magneux and the other communities to promote their suitability for Champagne vineyards.

But he is reluctant to celebrate his town's inclusion in the new territory until the government panel issues its final conclusions.

"There's no euphoria and no Champagne here because people are superstitious until the decision is definitive," Pinon said as he strolled among vendors during his town's annual festival of flowers in May. "I've tried to work as discreetly as possible on this."

Doreen Carvajal