Tom Cannavan's   

Tom takes an in-depth look at the planned expasion of the Champagne region, exploring the issues, motives, movers and shakers behind the plans. This report first appeared in Wine & Spirit magazine. Our thanks to them for allowing us to reproduce it here.

I have six billion euros.
Who will give me twelve?

Tom Stevenson, 09/08

"Everyone knows that Champagne could easily be expanded by as much as 10,000 hectares," says Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger. Everybody, that is, except me. I figured there might be between 1,200 and 5,000ha of land suitable for good quality Champagne production in the proposed 40 "new" villages. Admittedly, my figures are a guesstimate, but they were not plucked out of thin air. I looked at the current usage in the villages immediately adjacent to the proposed new ones and extrapolated. 5,000ha would create €6 billion in new wealth because the most suitable land for viticulture is the least suitable for any other form of agriculture, and the cheapest farmland in the region ranges from €1,800 in the Haute-Marne to €4,000 in the Marne. On the other hand, the most recent sale of modest, not grand cru, AOC Champagne land was in Bethon, which went for €1.2 million per ha. But if Taittinger is right, the potential for new wealth is €12 billion, not €6 billion.

Bring on the chorus girls

The houses are all singing from the same hymn sheet, and if there is one chorus I have heard more than any other, it is that the growers in general, the Syndicat General des Vignerons (SGV) in particular, are pushing for this expansion. It’s true, in theory at least. The request for an expansion was made formally by the SGV to INAO following a vote at the SGV’s general meeting on April 9 2003, when the motion was carried by 393 votes to 25.    sgv (3K)

To be polite, I find this perplexing. Are we to believe that the growers actually want to open up their monopoly to new owners and allow in almost one-third more grapes, which can only soften prices and reduce their income? Whatever the documented evidence, the biggest brands have the most to gain and I have been told off the record that it is their hand behind this expansion. I could understand if the leaders of the SGV came to some sort of an arrangement with the upper echelons of the Union des Maisons de Champagne (UMC) for the good of the industry, but this request was not agreed in a smoke-filled room behind closed doors. It was achieved by a democratic vote, which was conclusive; although growers who responded to my questions pointed out, not unreasonably, that the 393 affirmative votes by no means represent the majority opinion among the SGV’s 15,000-plus membership. The subplot is that, because the growers have nothing to gain, it would look good for them to be seen to be initiating this expansion; but how they got the SGV to play ball is subject to a lot of conspiracy theories.

I cannot quote the most extreme comments or accusations because, without proof, they would be actionable; but it would be fair to say that some growers are more than a little suspicious of the motives of certain individuals involved in pushing the SGV motion through. To paraphrase one of the more printable comments made to me by six growers and one small house: "We assume that most of those who attended the assembly were in favour of the motion to expand, which is why they went there. But as in all elections, people who complain seldom vote to defend themselves." On the other hand, this demonstrates that the growers who fear their franchise has been broken have only themselves to blame. Quantitative expansion or qualitative revision?

   Frédéric Cumenal, the président directeur général (PDG) of Moët & Chandon, told me: "The revision of the appellation is a fantastic opportunity to push further quality standards. We entirely support the idea of evaluating together a possible revision of the Champagne appellation. We fully trust INAO’s wisdom, and we will support the institution’s decision. We know they will select the criteria that will permit Champagne region to achieve its full potential."

Few spokesmen for the houses were willing to stray further from this party line. There is a sense of complacency about INAO’s quality criteria, but few suggested the application of such criteria must be completely transparent. One exception was Michel Letter, the PDG of Mumm and Perrier-Jouët (left), who demanded "no quantitative expansion without a qualitative revision".

He made this statement without any prompting, and if Champagne should take note of anyone inside its own industry it should be Letter, who (with Mumm’s former PDG, Jean-Marie Barillčre) knows how easy it is to lose a reputation and how difficult it is to regain.

The only way to ensure "no quantitative expansion without a qualitative revision" is to re-evaluate all the existing villages, not just the proposed new ones. Following the demise of the échelle des crus as a glorified price list, Champagne should dump its Beaujolais-like village-byvillage cru system and re-evaluate all vineyards on a plot-by-plot basis if their classification is to command any respect. Take Avize or Cramant, for example: this would entail reducing the status of some vineyards to premier cru, while those on the wrong side of the D9 would become simple village cru wines. On the other hand, there are a few places, such as Mareuil-sur-A˙, where a proportion of vineyards should be classified grand cru, while hardly any of its vineyards deserve less than premier cru status. And there will be some villages where less exalted sites will have to drop out of the appellation altogether. So, not only must there be full transparency about why new vineyard areas have been selected, there must also be a radical reassessment of Champagne’s cru status, and a trimming of the most inferior existing areas, if this expansion is to be credible.

This would not be the back-breaking, time-consuming task it sounds, since the data necessary is already available, having been accumulated during the five-year Zonage project in the 1990s. Zonage examined the entire AOC Champagne region plus almost 20,000ha of immediately surrounding areas by dividing it into more than 200,000 50m x 50m parcels, which were then subjected to the most intensive exploration of terroir ever conducted. It meticulously evaluated each parcel – from under the ground, above the ground and from space – by every means of analysis available at the time, from digging holes to satellite imagery.

Where there’s a will

So the means exists, but does the will? I was discussing this subject with Charles Philipponnat, the PDG of Champagne Philipponnat, who was very keen on such a revision even before the proposed expansion, yet very dubious about it ever taking place. "From a quality point of view," he said, "we trust INAO experts will qualify parcels just as good as, or better even than, those in the neighbouring villages. To be realistic, we expect little grand or premier cru land to be created, but the new areas should easily be capable of producing decent non-vintage material.

"However, if we classify new land, this implies that we should reevaluate existing land and, perhaps, declassify some areas in the process. I very much doubt that this will happen, which is a pity. Also, I think the status of grand or premier cru, as well as simple village cru, should apply to parcels, not whole villages; but as far as I know this has not been contemplated in the revision process."
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As it happens, a few days earlier I had a phone call from the PDG of a family-owned house of impeccable reputation, and he told me that he had only just heard the week before that the experts were indeed contemplating declassifying some land in current villages. He preferred not to be named, but felt I should know. What about compensation, I asked, and he told me there was talk of a compensation scheme similar to the one used for the 25ha of AOC Champagne that had to be destroyed for the TGV line. When I passed this on to Philipponnat, he responded: "If this idea is making its way into the minds of our experts and leaders, then it is great news, as it will make the whole process credible." So, maybe there is the will …

The credibility gap

Credibility is something that Champagne desperately needs at the moment. Requesting such a massive expansion when sales of Champagne are at record levels, demand is outstripping supply and almost every spare hectare of AOC land has been exhausted was bound to attract an adverse reaction. Is it any wonder that the international press (and not just the wine press) think it is nothing more than greed? Internet forums are practically foaming at the mouth in disgust, and Champagne should take heed because they are the preserve of die-hard wine consumers. With everyone in Champagne toeing the party line, the question of whether to expand appears not even open to debate within the industry itself, and that comes across as arrogance, merely fuelling the accusations of greed.

However, I honestly believe that Champagne is not guilty of greed. Just stupidity. The expansion proposals have – so far – been intelligently drawn up to enhance both the quality and efficiency of Champagne within its historical borders. It’s just that the timing sucks. And because of that, there is a credibility gap that Champagne must bridge if its "strictly delimited" image is to be taken seriously in the future. The only way to achieve that is not only to ensure that every hectare of newly classified AOC land is superior to the average quality of Champagne’s current vineyards (which makes an infallible argument for expansion), but also to provide complete transparency of the quality criteria involved and how those yardsticks have been applied by the experts.

What goes around comes around

The possibility of expanding Champagne is not a new topic. In a recent interview, Frédéric Rouzaud, the PDG of Champagne Louis Roederer, spoke about a similar project mooted in the late 1980s. Rouzaud claimed: "The crisis of 1990 (when higher prices led to a slowdown in sales) put an end to this," yet that was precisely the right strategic moment to contemplate an expansion. With sales plummeting, cellars bulging with stock, and 4,000ha of AOC Champagne yet to be planted, Champagne could not have been accused of cynically milking an expanding market. Furthermore, if it had gone ahead, the new areas planted would be coming on stream now, just as Champagne needs it and without the slightest recrimination.

None of us would have even noticed. Other expansions and, indeed, other contractions have come and gone – not just in Champagne, but in every wine region of France – without raising so much as an eyebrow. It is merely the timing of this expansion that has red-flagged it for all to see. A good illustration in Champagne is Fontaine-sur-A˙, which was added in 1990 without any hullabaloo, and quite rightly too, as it boasts some of the best slopes between Avenay Val d’Or and Louvois. Villages such as Fontaine-sur-A˙ were not delimited between 1908 and 1927 simply because their mayors did not bother to apply for inclusion in AOC Champagne. This was mostly because the landowners were aristocrats with no interest in commerce, or the villages in question had been devastated by phylloxera and switched to growing other crops.

Champagne’s AOC boundary is not carved in stone Historically, the province of Champagne covered 2.5 million ha. According to Cyrus Redding in A History and Description of Modern Wines, the Aube alone had 22,586ha of vines in 1833. There were in excess of 60,000ha of vineyards at the end of the 19th century (during Champagne’s so-called "golden years"). The appellation law of 1927 (which grew out of the delimitations of 1908 and 1919, and the lawsuit of 1911) recognised 46,000ha in 407 villages. In 1951, following a slump in the market, Champagne requested a contraction in the delimited area, and INAO reduced the AOC to 34,000ha in 302 villages. And there were 34,500ha in 311 villages when I started researching Champagne in 1980. Today, there are 35,200ha in 319 villages, of which just over 34,000 can be planted (the balance being tracks, bridges, cuts and other inaccessible areas), and 33,542ha are in fact planted.

go to part II, with before and after maps