Thu 27 Mar 2008
The announcement was made this month that the INAO, the institute that governs the appellation controlee system of vineyards and vine-growing in France, has authorized the expansion of the areas that may legitimately call themselves part of Champagne.
You must understand: This is a HUGE BIG DEAL. This NEVER HAPPENS.
The region in north-central France where the world’s best and best-known sparkling wines are made — and which alone should be entitled to the name “champagne” — was rigorously limited to 319 villages by the INAO in 1927. This recent addition of 38 villages or communes is unprecedented. The motivation lies in the increasing demand for champagne all over the world, but especially in Russia and China, those wondrous realms of new wealth. Between 2006 and 2007, sales of champagne increased 41 percent in Russian; in five years, sales of champagne have increased in China by 30 percent. There’s not enough to go around.
The INAO tentatively addressed the problem of supply and demand in 2006 by allowing, on an experimental basis, for the grape yield per hectare (about 2.47 acres) to increase from 13,000 kilos to 15,500 kilos, though the increase is supposed to be held in grower’s tanks in reserve in the event of disease, hail, frost or bad harvests. Still, evidence both historical and contemporary shows that in many cases increasing yields in vineyards (taking into account such factors as density of vines and canopy management) can result in lower quality wine.
As “TimesOnLine,” the website of The London Times said on March 14, “Permission to make champagne is almost a license to print money,” and not only because the luxurious effervescent beverage is so much in demand. Land that was previously outside the allowed areas of Champagne may increase in value as much as 200 times. Gilles Flutet, who is in charge of demarcation at INAO, was quoted in many sources as saying: “If your vines fall on the wrong side of the divide, they will be worth 5,000 euros a hectare. On the other side they will be worth a million euros.” License to print money indeed. We understand why communes have petitioned and filed law suits for years in their attempts to join the Magic Circle of Real Champagne Farmers or at least for the chance to sell their land. The fact that new law suits are being filed by land-owners and communes not admitted in the expansion — in other words, the losers — emphasizes how serious the fiduciary aspects of the situation are.
I hate to sound cynical. Obviously the INAO has spent a great deal of time researching the quality of the soil and the character of the land in the newly permitted communes, as well as the history and traditions and micro-climates of the anointed areas. In the United States, however, we have seen too often how political and commercial is the system that grants official American Viticultural Area status to regions that seem to have no real viticultural value other than the exigencies of local geography and the influence of local growers, winemakers and legislators. It would be a miracle if the INAO were immune to similar pressure. In all the stories I have read about the decision, no one is quoted as saying, “We’re doing this for the glory of our beloved Champagne region.”
It will be 10 years before grapes and juice from the 38 communes make their slow way through the traditional champagne method into bottles and thence onto the world’s retail shelves. By then, we might not care. Go ahead, throw a few more villages into the mix. Will the Russians and Chinese be able to tell the difference?
Image from istockphoto.com.