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Champagne's €6 billion expansion

Tom Stevenson, 11/07

     The proposed expansion of Champagne is not a new topic. In Champagne (Sotheby's Publications, 1986), I devoted three pages to the pros and cons of any likely increase in the size of AOC Champagne. At the time, I was definitely sitting on the fence, but by 1991 I was firmly in favour of a carefully calculated expansion.

Unlike now, 1991 would have been the perfect moment to announce such a decision. Sales were plummeting, cellars were bulging with stock, and 4,000 hectares of AOC Champagne had yet to be planted.

At such a moment, no one could have accused the champenois of milking an expanding market, and right now they could be planting new areas without the slightest hint of recrimination. But what did they do? They waited until 2005, when almost every hectare of spare AOC land had been exhausted and demand was threatening to outstrip supply.

Since the recent announcement of 40 new communes, the champenois have been accused of greed by the press and hypocrisy by consumers (Internet forums are full of outrage). However, even at this late stage, it is possible for Champagne to avoid most of flak, and produce a squeaky clean expansion.

The 40 new communes

INAO formed a committee of experts in five disciplines (history, geography, geology, phytosociology and agronomy) to examine all three zones of Champagne (shown right). These experts are supposed to be independent and impartial, but since their identities have been kept secret to prevent undue influence, there is no way of ascertaining whether they have any vested interests.

The use of the word expansion has given some people the wrong idea because these experts have not proposed to expand outwards, but rather to consolidate inwards. The zone de l'élaboration is outer limits of the region, which comprises of 647 communes, covering in excess of 600,000 hectares, where - and only where - it is legal to vinify Champagne.

The committee proposed no additions to this zone for the Marne département, but has added 18 communes adjacent to intensively cultivated areas in the Aisne, Aube and Haute Marne. Conversely, a number of communes near Soissons and some enclaves to the south of Champagne have been excluded.

The vast majority of the zone de l'élaboration cannot be planted. Châlons-en-Champagne, for example. This city is in the zone de l'élaboration; it is the home to Joseph Perrier and other houses, such as Duval-Leroy, have storage facilities here, but unlike Reims or Epernay, no vines are allowed to grow within the boundaries of Châlons-en-Champagne. The Zone de Production is located within the zone de l'élaboration, and currently consists of 319 communes, covering approximately 300,000 hectares. This is where vines may be cultivated, but only within a lacework of delimited areas representing a fraction of the surface area.

It is to the Zone de Production that the committee has recommended adding the following 40 communes: Marne département (Baslieux-les-Fismes, Blacy, Boissy-le-Repos, Bouvancourt, Breuil-sur-Vesle, Bussy-le-Repos, Champfleury, Courcy, Courdemanges, Courlandon, Fismes, Huiron, La Ville-sous-Orbais, Le Thoult-Trosnay, Loivre, Montmirail, Mont-sur-Courville, Péas, Romain, Saint-Loup, Soulanges and Ventelay); Aube (Arrelles, Balnot-la-Grange, Bossancourt, Bouilly, Etourvy, Fontvannes, Javernant, Laines-aux-bois, Macey, Messon, Prugny , Saint-Germain-L'Epine, Souligny, Torvilliers and Villery), Aisne (Marchais-en-Brie) and Haut-Marne (Champcourt and Harricourt).

The committee also proposed that two villages in the Marne (Germaine and Orbais l'Abbaye) should be kicked out!

The process

Early next year, INAO will decide whether to accept these proposals (Champagne has a friend at INAO, Yves Bénard, who conveniently took the top job earlier this year!). If accepted, the proposals will go through a year long public enquiry, which is when the real fun begins because this is traditionally when the findings of independent experts come under pressure from interested parties. It is not so much the few who might object, as the many who will want to climb aboard the gravy train, and what a gravy train it is!

Based on the location of the 40 proposed new communes, I estimate the potential new AOC land to be between 1,200 and 5,000 hectares.

The value of each hectare will increase overnight from between €1,800 and €5,000 up to €1.2m, creating as much as €6 billion of new wealth. Even if a number of other villages have elbowed their way into the Zone de Production, it will still be up to independent experts to decide which plots are suitable for the Zone Parcellaire de Production de Raisins (the vinegrowing area).

Why these specific 40 communes?

Well, if you look at their location on a map, you will see that they consolidate existing areas, filling in gaps where an impartial expert might reasonably expect vineyards should exist. Péas and Saint-Loup, for example, fill two holes in the otherwise contiguous vineyards northeast of Sézanne. And Blacy, Bussy-le-Repos, Courdemanges, Huiron and Soulanges extend the most promising parts of the Vitry-le-François district.

This sort of rationalisation has happened before, but never on such a scale. When I first started researching Champagne, the Zone de Production consisted of 311 villages, containing 34,500 hectares of AOC Champagne. Now there are 319 villages and 35,200 hectares. A good illustration of how the numbers crept up is Fontaine-sur-A (right), which was was added in 1990 without any hullabaloo. Anyone with the slightest knowledge of viticulture who has ever driven between Avenay Val d'Or and Louvois, will know that all the wonderful of Tauxières-Mutry and Louvois should be coated with vines.

It was bad enough that so little land could be utilised in either village, but to have an entire commune slap bang in the middle of this protected valley that is not even in the Zone de Production was madness. How did this occur? Fontaine-sur-A is typical of so many other Champagne villages that were not delimited between 1919 and 1927. They were not included because their mayors did not bother to put the villages up for delimitation, mostly because the landowners were aristocrats with no interest in commerce

These 40 communes will not become part of Champagne's Zone de Production before 2009 and only after this will the independent experts be allowed to consider precisely what areas should be cultivated. Although any new land is supposed to conform to certain criteria, such as soil, subsoil and exposure, nothing is quantified and, amazingly, no minimum requirements have been set.

This is how and where it could all go pear-shaped because Champagne's continued success depends on maintaining its reputation, which is already under threat due to the bad timing of its expansion. To emerge from the expansion with its reputation intact, the expansion must be seen as essential, and that is only possible if minimum requirements are set that make any post-expansion region intrinsically superior to the pre-expansion region.

This could easily be achieved by working out the average échelle de cru per hectare for the current region, and insisting that no new land may be authorised unless it achieves a higher échelle.

   The CIVC, however, is dismissive of the échelle des crus, considering it to be little more than a glorified price list that has become defunct since the advent of a free market. CIVC's Daniel Lorsen pointed out that premiums paid for Chardonnay make its percentile classifications meaningless, particularly for villages below premier cru status. He is correct, but inflated Chardonnay prices have nothing to do with the intrinsic quality of the terroir

The CIVC should take advantage of the demise of the échelle des crus as a fiscal instrument by putting it to work in a different and better way.

Freed of any monetary constraints, it could be radically overhauled, rectifying a number of overrated and underrated échelle des crus, and classifying on a parcel by parcel basis, in line with that of a true cru of the Côte d'Or, rather than the village cru of Beaujolais. To achieve this and to classify accurately any new land, the independent experts need look no further than the massive volume of data accumulated by the Zonage project in the 1990s.

Zonage, a space-age project

In a five year mission that began in 1990, the entire Zone Parcellaire de Production de Raisins plus almost 20,000 hectares of surrounding areas was divided into over 200,000 50m x 50m parcels, which were then subjected to the most intensive exploration of terroir ever conducted. The Zonage project included every means of analysis available at the time, from digging holes in each parcel to the evaluation of satellite imagery.

The data was collected and collated into three basic categories of information: Climat (rain, temperature and sunshine), Topography (altitude, height and aspect), and Topsoil & Subsoil (geology and pedology). To illustrate the depth and detail of data collected for just one sub-category, pedology, a 1.5m deep, 60cm diameter hole was dug in every 50m x 50m parcel to ascertain:

When asked, the CIVC had no idea whether anyone had considered using the Zonage data, but armed with this level of detail for every 50m x 50m plot in the area immediately abutting the entire Zone Parcellaire de Production de Raisins, and the lacework of areas between, the committee would not only be uniquely equipped to identify parcels that are the most suitable for vinegrowing, but would also be able to quantify degrees of superiority in each terroir. This would provide precisely the sort of transparency required for a total overhaul of the échelle des crus and to use this classification as a terroir-driven instrument to authorise only those areas of new land that are demonstrably above the average échelle for the current region.

Is an expansion necessary?

Only a fool or an opponent of Champagne would not be in favour of an expansion that guaranteed to raise the potential quality of the region's vineyards, but is an expansion necessary, and is it necessary now?

Possibly not in both cases. Since Champagne sales are cyclical, and the next crash is long overdue, Champagne could be heading for a double whammy. First it attracts severe criticism for proposing an expansion merely to feed record sales and fuel rising prices, then just as Champagne brings its new vineyards on line, the crash happens, leading to an even worse overstock situation than the 1990s (which took almost a decade to overcome). This is a very likely scenario. It could happen. Perhaps the expansion should be put on hold until crash, then by the time the vineyards are agreed and planted, the next boom should have arrived!

The truth is, however, that they don't need any new vineyards. Maximum yields in Champagne have always been a work of fiction, with the champenois growing vastly more than they need and simply harvesting up to a synthetic limit, leaving the unpicked grapes for the birds. Until 2004, that is, when they were required to harvest everything and deliver any excess to the distillery. We now have had much more accurate production figures.

The maximum legal yield in 2004 was 12,000kg per hectare, plus 2,000kg en blocage, but the average actual yield was a massive 23,000kg (146.5hl/ha). It goes without say that Champagne's make believe maximum does nothing to affect quality of the grapes grown. Those grapes harvested above 14,000kg are just as good, or bad, as the the grapes in the same vineyard below14,000kg.

So we have soaring sales creating an artificial demand on grapes which are then sold at inflated prices. With more wine sold than produced, needless pressure is placed on stocks, and the result is increased prices for the consumer. All this is ultimately used to plead the case for expanding Champagne's vineyards, yet they are throwing away up to 40% of the grapes they grow every year...