Sunday, February 23, 2014

Champagne's Big Adventure

Bruce Sanderson
Issue: November 15, 2008

Earlier this year in Champagne, French authorities announced a list of 40 villages that are to be included in an expansion of the Champagne appellation boundaries. The goal is to increase the vineyard area and the production zone in order to meet the global demand for bubbly. Currently, 319 villages are sanctioned; under the new plan, two villages included in the existing appellation will be removed, making the new total number of villages 357.

For the newly included villages, the windfall may be enormous. Land values could soar from less than $5,000 an acre to more than $600,000, estimated at today's exchange rate, if planted with grapes to make Champagne.

The appeal process, originally scheduled to have concluded in July, is still going on. But that is only one part of a complex process; it will take years before bubbly from one of these newly designated villages is available, even if the proposition goes according to schedule.

In the event that all 40 proposed villages are accepted into the new boundaries for Champagne, the parcels for new plantings still must be determined. That's because Champagne consists of two zones: one where the wine can be made, aged and shipped, and a smaller one where the grapes are grown. The latter is where the 40 proposed villages are located, clustered in small groups around the region.

More importantly, this is an opportunity for all parties—growers, houses, regulatory groups and government agencies—to improve the Champagne appellation by adding the best of the new parcels and eliminating the worst of the existing ones. It's an opportunity that cannot be squandered. Much of Champagne's success as a luxury product hinges on the notion of scarcity. While the actual increase in area under vine won't be determined until at least 2014, an expansion places the idea of scarcity under scrutiny.

The revision of the appellation began in 2003, when the Syndicat Général des Vignerons de la Champagne (SGV) appealed to the Institut National de l'Origine et de la Qualité (INAO) for a new set of criteria for determining both the zone of production for Champagne and new areas to plant vineyards. The original 1927 law regulating the appellation, initiated in 1908, was in part based on vineyards planted before phylloxera.

Champagne was a very different place then; so was demand for its wine. Phylloxera, World War I, the Russian Revolution of 1917 and, in the United States, Prohibition and the Great Depression all but eliminated what had once been a booming market for Champagne. Many villages entitled to grow wine grapes based on the 1927 decree opted out, deciding it was more profitable to grow other agricultural crops.

As demand for Champagne grew from the 1950s on, the appellation's 85,000 acres of vineyards became fully planted. As a short-term measure, yields were increased, depending on the abundance of the harvest, so that reserves could be stored for future use. Although the reserve system smoothes out the peaks and valleys of Champagne available for sale, poor-quality years such as 2001 and high-yield years such as 2004 can also result in weaker blends of non-vintage wines.

At any rate, it is a short-term solution, until the zone can be expanded. But even if the proposal follows the timetable of the SGV and INAO, consumers are unlikely to see a drop of Champagne from the new grapes until 2020. A team of scientists, including a geologist, soil scientist, an agricultural engineer and historian, will determine where vineyards can be planted. All potential vineyards, both those existing and proposed, will be examined. Parcels may be gained and lost.

This will be a long, slow process. For example, currently, Champagne's villages are classified, but not the vineyards within them. A visit to a village-rated grand cru reveals that not all vineyards are equal. Soils and exposure vary dramatically and affect which grape varieties are planted in a given site. Still, growers also have the benefit of better clones, rootstocks and farming techniques, all of which improve quality. This is one reason that yields have increased over the past 50 years without a drastic drop in quality.

The Champenois must use the opportunity of this expansion and reclassification to increase the quality of the region overall. Figuring out the best villages and the best vineyards sites is critical to preserve and expand Champagne's quality. Champagne has had to reinvent itself more than once during the past 150 years. If politics don't interfere, it has the potential for success. That should make a lot of Champagne lovers happy.

Senior editor Bruce Sanderson has been with Wine Spectator since 1993.


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