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Champagne expansion, part II

Tom Stevenson, 09/08

go to part I of this feature

The AOC law specifies three zones: Zone de l’élaboration; Zone de Production; and Zone Parcellaire de Production de Raisins. The Zone de l’élaboration is outer limits of the region, currently comprising 647 communes covering in excess of 600,000 ha. It is only in this zone that it’s legal to vinify and transport Champagne grapes and wines. Within the Zone de l’élaboration is the Zone de Production, an inner area currently consisting of 319 communes covering approximately 300,000 ha. Within these communes there are 35,200ha where AOC vineyards may be planted.

champagne-before (29K)

Expansion so far

As Frédéric Rouzaud said recently: "No mentions of increases or decreases are being made at this point," and theoretically he is correct. Theoretically, INAO’s experts could do a 1951 and reduce the appellation, but realistically there is a fat chance of that happening. There have been both increases and decreases at village level, and ideally there will be increases and decreases at vineyard level; but Rouzaud is right about one thing: we have to wait. The chronology up to now and 12 years into the future looks like this:

2003 On April 9, the SGV requested revision of AOC Champagne; INAO formed a committee of experts in five disciplines (history, geography, geology, phytosociology and agronomy), which included only one Champenois (CIVC technical expert);

2004-2007 Experts examined two zones of Champagne (Zone de l’élaboration and Zone de Production) at village level;

2007 On June 26, INAO’s experts drew up confidential maps and presented a preview of the proposed changes to the CIVC at a secret meeting in Epernay; On October 10, Sophie Claeys-Pergament of L’Union broke the story of the proposed 40 "new" and two "excluded" villages; As a stopgap measure, for a five-year trial period (that will, no doubt, last and last) to increase production immediately, the maximum yield was raised from 13,000kg to 15,500kg per ha;

2008 On March 14, INAO issued its first avis (opinion) accepting the experts’ preliminary findings; The proposals go before a year-long public inquiry, which might add (likely) or remove (unlikely) villages to either the Zone de l’élaboration or Zone de Production;

2009 Early in the year, INAO will make its second and final avis at village level on the (probably enlarged) findings of the public inquiry. As this does not have any direct influence on the experts’ next task of identifying potential vineyard areas on a plot-by-plot basis, and a rejection could invite long and serious legal action from any "additional" villages tacked on by the public inquiry, the likelihood is that INAO will accept the verdict in full; The secretary of state for agriculture will sign a law authorising new boundaries for the Zone de l’élaboration and Zone de Production;

2009-2014 It will take at least five years for INAO’s experts to examine in detail all 40 (or more?) "new" villages to decide which plots might be suitable for vineyards;

2015 INAO will issue its first avis (opinion) accepting in part or all the experts’ proposals at vineyard level; These proposals go before another year-long public inquiry, which is likely to be even more of a bun fight than the first one because the land on the right side of the experts’ divide will increase in value overnight from as little as €1,800 to as much as €1.2 million per hectare, whereas the land on the other side will not;

2016 Early in the year, INAO will makes its second and final avis at vineyard level; The secretary of state for agriculture will sign a law authorising new boundaries for the Zone Parcellaire de Production de Raisins (AOC Champagne vineyards);

2017 The CIVC will authorise the first new areas to be planted;

2019 The first new vines achieve third leaf and can be harvested;

2021 It will not be until the middle of this year that the very first wines could possibly hit the shelf, the earliest disgorgement date being March 31, and even the most penny-pinching producers would allow the wine three months ageing prior to shipment.

But even this final far-flung date is subject to there being no delay in the schedule; and with two public inquiries in the offing, who would bet on that?

Village verdict

After all the cynicism and reality checks, readers might be surprised that I’m more than a little happy with the village level expansion, but I have to call it as I see it. The worthiness or otherwise of the new vineyards ultimately decides the fate of this expansion, but it can already be seen that the experts have done an excellent job so far. Even someone without any knowledge of the region and its terrain should be able to sense the neat way in which the Zone de l’élaboration envelops the Zone de Production, just one commune deep in most parts, easing the necessary movements between vineyards, press houses, wineries and warehouses. It was impossible to continue the logic of a one-commune envelope along the very southern border of the Aube district because that would have encroached upon the Côte d’Or département, and Burgundy would never have allowed that.

There is only one further improvement the experts could have made, as far as I can see, and that would be to encompass a narrow corridor along the main motor routes linking each of the three separated districts. Perhaps it is a bit too radical for a traditional institution like INAO to contemplate, because it would be purely for transport, not elaboration, and I would include a clause in the law reserving the right to adapt these corridors should new roads be built.

As for Zone de Production, I am reasonably happy with the 40 "new" villages, which do not so much expand the AOC outwards as consolidate it inwards, filling gaps between or adjacent to existing villages, where an impartial expert might reasonably expect vineyards should exist. Even those villages that fall outside the current Zone de l’élaboration are, in fact, within the potential of the 1927 law. As for the two "excluded" villages, Germaine and Orbais l’Abbaye, I am less convinced. Although neither village has demonstrated much in terms of quality over the years, and thus their exclusion is welcome, they look too much like sacrificial lambs to me. Is it coincidence that only two producers are involved, and that they happen to be two of the largest houses in Champagne with the most to gain from an expansion? On their own, such tokens are not worth the effort, but as part of a larger exclusion that included lesser-quality land within the current 319 villages, and a plot-by-plot classification of grand and premier crus, they would really help Champagne bridge the credibility gap.

When the public inquiry has made its deliberations, the experts will face their toughest test, but they should be in no doubt about what they have to deliver. If all the new land they propose can be demonstrated to have a potential quality in excess of the average quality of the current AOC vineyards, then they will have produced an infallible case for expansion, because not to proceed would be to condemn the future of Champagne to an unnecessarily inferior quality

go to part I of this feature