REIMS, France, March 3, 2008 – As champagne sales pop all-time record
highs and demand outstrips supply, France’s wine-making czars are to issue an
historic ruling to extend the champagne-growing area, a move that will pour
new wealth into 40 small rural villages.
Like other French wines, Champagne-labelled bottles are produced only from
grapes nurtured in a specially-designated region — in this case 33,500
hectares of land mapped out almost a century back.
But with production of the bubbly at a maximum 400 million bottles a year,
grape prices are exploding and the value of a hectare of vineyard has hit
almost a million euros.
As sales rise constantly, climbing 5.3 percent in 2007 to 338 million
bottles, the potential new winners of the prestigious label are waiting
breathlessly for a re-drawn champagne map to be issued March 13 by the body
that rules over wine, the INAO or Institut National de l’Origine et de la
"If your vines fall on the wrong side of the divide, they will be worth
5,000 euros a hectare," said Gilles Flutet who is in charge of demarcation at
INAO. "On the other side they will be worth a million euros."
The current champagne region — which like other wine regions is known as
an AOC or "appellation d’origine controlee" — was set out in stone in 1927
legislation and enhanced by technical guidelines laid down by INAO in 1984. It
encompasses 317 village communes spread over four areas growing the
Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes used to ferment the bubbly.
For some of these communes, it was a long battle to be classified as part
of one of the world’s most profitable wine-making regions.
"We made several bids in the 1960s but were always turned down," said
Gerard Poix, mayor of Champfleury, near the city of Reims.
In 1927, his commune opted to remain outside the area designated to make
champagne "because it was expensive to make and didn’t make money." But when
the fizz became one of the country’s top sucess stories, many once-reluctant
communes tried to turn back.
"In 1989 we put in a very detailed plea including an analysis of the soil
paid for by local farmers and a list of the plots proving that vineyards
existed there in 1900," he added.
Other communes on the other hand did not expect to be put on the list drawn
up by INAO experts on the basis of elements such as the existence or not of a
wine-making tradition, as well as soil and weather and other nature-based
"I found out in the paper," said Christian Degrippes, the mayor of Courcy,
north of Reims, which is primarily a cereal-growing area.
Even the head of the SGV wine-makers union, which because of growing
complaints had asked for an update of the AOC in 2003, expressed surprise that
as many as 40 communes were to be added.
"But that proves the experts did their job well," said Patrick Le Brun.
Back in 1995 already, and after a 13-year legal battle, the commune of
Fontaine-sur-Ay, located close to several of the best champagne-growing
slopes, had obtained a ruling from France’s highest court enabling it to plant
30 hectares of AOC vines.
That commune, where the price of land has leapt from 2,800 to one million
euros a hectare, has now completed its third harvest.
"We now have to wait for the authorities to define the plots," said
Degrippes, who believes only one of seven growers in his commune will be
authorised to plant champagne-making grapes.
Once the new geographical champagne-growing region becomes official, those
left out will be able to file for redress on the basis of the criteria
rubber-stamped by the authorities.
A final plan will then be submitted to the top administrative French court,
the Council of State, and become official by decree in 2009.
But tipplers will have to wait another decade before the extension of the
Champagne region affects production.