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.
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."
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