Champagne: Dramatic Change in the Land of Tradition

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In a region steeped with tradition and history, the past decade has brought about some dramatic change. The beginning part of that change started with a trickling of grape growers, who had supplied the grand Champagne houses (Veuve Clicquot, Moet & Chandon, Bollinger, Taittinger, etc...) with the grapes for their Champagne, to venture into making their own cuvees.

At the same time international export markets; such as China, Russia, the United States, and Britain, have all showed large increases in demand. While some of the highly regarded, and better known grower/producers became established in the export Champagne marketplace, a natural and obvious occurrence has happened. The major Champagne houses have run short of supply of grapes. This is a dilemma, because only wines made from the Champagne region of France have the legal right to call themselves Champagne.

On March 14, 2008, the INAO (The Institut National des Appellations d'Origine)
the governing council for all A.O.C.'s (Appellation of Control) in France, approved an expansion of the region to neighboring villages. There is hot contention over which villages should be included in the expansion, for many reasons, but the largest reason is there is a lot of money at stake. For those land holders in the two zones, Zone de l'Elaboration and Zone de Production slotted to become part of the Champagne region; there is a financial gain of, in some cases up to 200 times the previous value of their land. For those areas nearby that are not selected, this is something worth fighting for.

Champagne, a region that has championed the concept of terroir, the combination of elements including soil, wind, sun, elevation, etc... that make a specific place unique, now has to explain the elements being similar in regions that were not within the borders of the Champagne previously. The INAO spent two years of research with a team that included a geologist, historian, geographer, agronomist, and a phytosociologist (Study of species of plant communities), to make their recommendations. Regional expert Tom Stevenson states in Wine Report 2009,

"There is now only one get-out clause available to the champenois: to demonstrate transparently that all proposed new vineyards are superior to the average-(not lowest-) level vineyards currently classified. All this can be achieved by the experts with little more than the data accumulated by Champagne's five-year zonage project. Classifying only superior land makes an infallible argument, because to deny such an expansion would be to condemn Champagne to an intrinsically inferior future potential. However, to set out the parameters of vineyard quality and to demonstrate their application transparently will inevitably result in the declassification of some of the poorest currently classified AOC land. This would entail scrapping the Echelle des Crus, which is nothing more than a defunct, politically biased shopping list, and replacing it with a Cote d'Or-style parcel by parcel classification, which Champagne deserves."

If Champagne heeds the advice of Mr. Stevenson, the region would actually shrink 12,000 hectares. So, with a booming export market, and a grower/ producer population that started as a trickle, and now represents approximately 4,000 of the 15,000 growers of Champagne; the politics, prices, marketing campaigns, and availability of product from this region will be of great interest.