How the bubbly burst

The finest champagne grapes will wither on the vine this year – made redundant by recession.

Some of the most prized of all champagne grapes are grown on the chalky, sun-blasted slopes above the village of Chouilly, just east of Epernay. What seems to be a single, immense vineyard, part of the celebrated Côte des Blancs, is actually a medieval quilt of small family holdings.

To an outsider, the rows of vines with golden chardonnay grapes ripe for the picking, are impossible to tell apart. Not for Philippe Gué. He knows his vines like a mother knows her own children in a crowded playground.

Mr Gué drove us over rutted tracks to one of his own rows among thousands of others, awaiting the sound and fury of the grape harvest that begins today. He stooped and plucked a bunch of tiny grapes for tasting. Some were tinged with the marks of a recent bombardment by hail. Otherwise, he said, they were close to perfect.

Each grape exploded in the mouth like a depth-charge of liquid honey, but left a lingering tang of sharpness on the tongue. "They have great sweetness," Mr Gué said. "But also just the right amount of acidity, the perfect balance to make an excellent 2009 vintage of champagne."

Many of these wonderful grapes will never pop a cork or overflow a glass at a wedding or christening. When the champagne vendanges, or harvest, starts today, Mr Gué, an award-winning small producer in Chouilly, will leave one-third of his grapes – the equivalent of 20,000 bottles of champagne – to wither on the vine.

For years, champagne has defied the slump in other French wines and expanded its sales, especially in China and Russia but also in one of its oldest and biggest markets, Britain. But now the champagne bubble has burst. There are over one billion bottles of champagne – almost three years' global supply – piled up in store.

After difficult negotiations, the big champagne houses and the thousands of small producers agreed this month to defend the "image" of champagne as a costly but affordable luxury, rather than allow prices to fall to the level of "other" sparkling wines from Italy, Australia or New Zealand. Instead of maintaining full production and allowing lower prices to stimulate demand, they will dump grapes, or store grape juice, equivalent to more than a quarter of this year's harvest.

"It breaks my heart to abandon grapes of such high quality," said Mr Gué. "But what else can we do? If the demand is no longer there, we cannot keep producing at the same level. It costs money to pick the grapes. It costs money to make and store the wine. Fruit growers do just the same. If there is no demand for peaches or apricots, they leave them on the tree."

For years the big champagne houses – Moët et Chandon, Lanson, Veuve Clicquot – have been scarcely able to buy enough grapes to keep up with world demand. But now the trend has abruptly reversed. Global sales of champagne fell by 19 per cent in the first half of this year – when the world found it had little to celebrate, or could not afford to pay £25 for a bottle of reasonable quality champagne. Global sales may fall to 260 million bottles this year, compared to a peak of 339 million bottles in 2007.

The champagne glut has led to speculation that prices this Christmas may fall to as low as £10 a bottle in Britain (where sales have slumped by around 40 per cent since the beginning of 2008). But the main champagne trade body insists that these reports are premature. "There may be some cut-price offers by supermarkets for the lower-price champagnes," said Daniel Lorson of the Comité Interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne (CIVC). "But overall we expect the price of champagne to hold up well. That is the strategy we have chosen."

The cut-price route taken by other French wine-growing areas in the past – Beaujolais, middle-market Bordeaux, Muscadet – has been calamitous in the long run, the champagne industry argues. Their sales boomed in the 1980s and 1990s and then collapsed. Champagne does not want to go down the same route.

"Champagne is something special, something that is associated with festivity and the high points in people's lives," said Mr Gué. "If you want to keep up the quality, it is relatively costly to make and to store. If you let prices fall too far, you might damage the brand forever."

The champagne industry is sensitive about reports of grapes being left to rot on the vine. The truth, as always in wine politics, is rather complicated. Growers and big champagne houses have set the ceiling on grapes which can be used for champagne this year at 9.7 tonnes a hectare for small producers, and 8 tonnes a hectare for vineyards owned by the big champagne houses. Last year, the agreed harvest was 13 tonnes of grapes for every hectare (roughly two and half acres).

The difference, the equivalent of 100 million bottles of champagne, does not necessarily have to be left to rot. Growers have the right to keep a fixed amount of wine in a "quality reserve" – non-sparking, white wine which can be made into champagne at a later date, if demand increases.

Those growers who have space in their allotted reserve can go above the 9.7 tonnes limit this year. Those who have already reached the maximum, like Mr Gué, have no choice but to abandon a large part of their harvest.

Like many small producers, Mr Gué sells half of his grapes to a big champagne house in his case, Veuve Clicquot. The rest he bottles and sells under his own label. These sales, to personal callers and regular customers, have not been affected by la crise. Mr Gué will therefore reduce his grape sales to Veuve Cliquot, rather than cut production of his own, or rather his late father's label, René Gué.

"There are already plenty of champagne bargains if you know where to look," Mr Gué said. "We sell our own bottles to callers from €13 [£11]. I think that's excellent value for champagne."

Mr Gué's champagne is indeed prized by those who know it. He sells for a very reasonable price, compared to champagnes of similar quality in the French or British shops. Not everyone can drive to Chouilly to stock up for Christmas. The fact that Mr Gué's reasonable prices have resisted the recession better than some of the big-name labels might, nonetheless, give the industry cause for thought.

Small producers can cope with a deliberately reduced champagne harvest for one year, but not for two or three. Twelve months from now, if sales fail to recover, there could be a bitter harvest in Champagne.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
Sport
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Voices
A meteor streaks across the sky during the Perseid Meteor Shower at a wind farm near Bogdanci, south of Skopje, Macedonia, in the early hours of 13 August
voicesHagel and Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise, says Robert Fisk
News
peopleEnglishman managed quintessential Hollywood restaurant Chasen's
Life and Style
food + drinkHarrods launches gourmet food qualification for staff
Arts and Entertainment
Michael Flatley prepares to bid farewell to the West End stage
danceMichael Flatley hits West End for last time alongside Team GB World champion Alice Upcott
Life and Style
Horst P Horst mid-fashion shoot in New York, 1949
fashionFar-reaching retrospective to celebrate Horst P Horst's six decades of creativity
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
i100
Life and Style
Black Ivory Coffee is made using beans plucked from elephants' waste after ingested by the animals
food + drinkFirm says it has created the "rarest" coffee in the world
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T plays live in 2007 before going on hiatus from 2010
arts + entsSinger-songwriter will perform on the Festival Republic Stage
Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Oracle 11g SQL 2008 DBA (Unix, Oracle RAC, Mirroring, Replicati

    £6000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Oracle 11...

    Recruitment Consultant (Graduate Trainee), Finchley Central

    £17K OTE £30K: Charter Selection: Highly successful and innovative specialist...

    SQL DBA/ C# Developer - T-SQL, C#.Net

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Working with an exciting ...

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    Day In a Page

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition