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.

Voices
The Sumatran tiger, endemic to the Indonesian island of Sumatra, is an endangered species
voicesJonathon Porritt: The wild tiger population is thought to have dropped by 97 per cent since 1900
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him
musicIndie music promoter was was a feature at Carter gigs
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
Story line: Susanoo slays the Yamata no Orochi serpent in the Japanese version of a myth dating back 40,000 years
arts + entsApplying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
News
Performers dressed as Tunnocks chocolate teacakes, a renowned Scottish confectionary, perform during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park in Glasgow on July 23, 2014.
news
Life and Style
Popular plonk: Lambrusco is selling strong
Food + drinkNaff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
News
Gardai wait for the naked man, who had gone for a skinny dip in Belfast Lough
newsTwo skinny dippers threatened with inclusion on sex offenders’ register as naturists criminalised
News
Shake down: Michelle and Barack Obama bump knuckles before an election night rally in Minnesota in 2008, the 'Washington Post' called it 'the fist bump heard round the world'
newsThe pound, a.k.a. the dap, greatly improves hygiene
Arts and Entertainment
La Roux
music
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Fellows as John Shuttleworth
comedySean O'Grady joins Graham Fellows down his local Spar
News
people
News
Ross Burden pictured in 2002
people
News
Elisabeth Murdoch: The 44-year-old said she felt a responsibility to 'stand up and be counted’'
media... says Rupert Murdoch
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Extras
indybest
Sport
Arsenal signing Calum Chambers
sportGunners complete £16m transfer of Southampton youngster
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

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Telesales Manager. Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Day In a Page

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

    Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on