Champagne's €6 billion expansionTom 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.
|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.
|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.
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-Aÿ (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-Aÿ 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
|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
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:
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
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...