The bubbly's all shook up

The quality of the world's most famous drink is in jeopardy as growers cut corners to meet the increasing demand

The world of champagne is fizzing like a bottle jerked around by a racing driver. Sales will reach an all-time high of more than 320 million bottles this year, as the world prepares to celebrate a new century and a new millennium. The biggest remaining family-owned champagne house, Laurent-Perrier, hopes to cash in by floating itself partially on the Paris Bourse next week. Five of the best-known champagne brands have changed hands in less than a year.

Such a frenzy of demand for champagne, as a drink, and as a business, is a subject for joy in the chalky ridges of north-eastern France, which produce the world's best-known wine: a wine synonymous with celebration. But the more cautious, and wiser, champagne producers and traders are wary of a 21st-century hangover.

Although every effort has been made to ensure there are plenty of stocks for the last night of the year, and the first morning of a new millennium, the big champagne houses remain anxious about the possible effects of speculation and deliberately manipulated foreign shortages. They say emphatically that they do not want a big bubble in champagne prices in 1999, which could play into the hands of their increasingly competitive rivals for the wired-cork market from other parts of the world (and even other parts of France). An increase in prices of 5 to 7 per cent is the most that they expect or condone.

An extra 74 million bottles have been released from a strategic reserve, purposely created over the last eight years to make sure that champagne does not offend its traditional - or new - customers with millennial shortages and high prices. Some in the champagne industry are, nonetheless, fearful that demand might outstrip all expectations or that retailers - and especially supermarket chains - might decide to generate shortages of their own.

"We can cope with a surge of 10 per cent of demand but beyond that we might be in trouble. Honestly, no one can say exactly what will happen," says Yves Benard, president of the union of champagne houses.

Smaller producers are dismissive of talk of shortages. "I think the big houses started the rumours and now they have become a little scared of the consequences," says Philippe Gue, a champagne grower, who sells under his own label in Chouilly, just east of Epernay. "There has been increased demand but nothing we cannot cope with. A prodigious amount of champagne is drunk every Christmas and every New Year's Eve. There is a limit to how much more can be drunk for the millennium - even in Britain."

Mr Gue, and others, are worried, however, about another possible consequence of the continuing boom in demand for champagne. Although there will be an inevitable dip in sales in 2001, market analysts reckon that, world economy permitting, champagne will resume a steady 2 per cent annual increase in sales in the first years of the 21st century.

The problem is that the Champagne region is already almost to the limit of what it can grow, under the present legal restrictions on acreage of vineyards and production methods. There were 292,458, 092 bottles sold last year (two-thirds in France, with Britain, the second biggest customer, sinking 24 million bottles). Existing vineyards can probably produce about 300 million bottles a year.

There has already been a steady rise in active Appellation d' Origine Controlee planting areas in the last 20 years, offending some purists, and growers, who fear that the reputation of champagne is being undermined by poorer quality grapes. Under the planting restrictions, first mapped in 1927, there are a further 1,500 hectares (4,000 acres) of marginal land, which could legally be used to grow champagne but which now grows cereals or rape-seed. There are plans afoot to plant vines in all this land over the next five years, bringing maximum production up to about 320 million bottles. But what after that?

Some growers - and would-be growers - are already pointing out that the 1927 mapping had nothing necessarily to do with the factors which make one plot good for wine and another only for sugar-beet (a mysterious blend of soil qualities, micro-climates and directions of slope). They say that many villages in the Champagne region refused the now-treasured "appellation" in 1927 because, at the time, it was more profitable to grow wheat. Jealous of their neighbours' smarter long-term choice, they would now jump at the chance to grow champagne grapes.

Mr Gue is worried by this kind of talk. "I have myself benefited from the expansion of approved planting areas in the past, so I have to be careful what I say. But the fact is the more that growing is extended to marginal areas, the more we risk diminishing the quality and reputation of the whole champagne appellation."

This argument is complicated by the fact that the chain of production in Champagne differs from all other French wine-growing areas. In Bordeaux and Burgundy the quality and reputation of the labels is rooted in the near-mystical belief that great wines grow in unique plots of soil; the wines are known by the name of the chateau (Bordeaux) or the village (Burgundy) where they were grown.

Champagne, by contrast, is dominated by, and known by the names of, the big champagne companies - Moet et Chandon, Veuve Cliquot, Mumm and Laurent-Perrier. These big houses grow few grapes of their own. They buy and blend grapes from different parts of the region to create a pre-ordained taste and level of quality.

This is much closer to the industrial approach used by the great Californian and Australian wineries, usually decried by French wine chauvinists. Champagne purists insist that it is the only way to make high- class champagne. Wine from one vineyard is "simplistic". To achieve greatness, it must blend the differing qualities of grapes grown in different parts of the region.

With the boom in demand for champagne in recent years (despite a slump in the early 1990s economic downturn), there has been a surge in direct sales by grower-producers, making wine from their own grapes. Some of these champagnes are - to my, perhaps, uneducated taste - excellent and relatively cheap. Anyone visiting France this summer, and fearful that champagne prices might surge in Britain this winter, might be well-advised to detour to Champagne and sample, and buy, some of these one-grower labels (from about pounds 7 a bottle). Mr Gue in Chouilly is one place to start.

Nonetheless, the danger of a demand-led expansion of champagne-growing areas - even to land already mapped for champagne use - remains real. The big houses would stick with the growers they know and would always be able to maintain quality. But there might be a proliferation of cheaper blends, and one-grower champagnes, which could progressively undermine the reputation of the region.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Andy Davidhazy at the beginning (left) and end (right) of his hike
Taylor Swift is applying to trademark song lyrics from 1989
The popularity of TV shows such as The Liver Birds encouraged Liverpudlians to exaggerate their Scouse accent
voicesWe exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
Parker says: 'I once had a taster use the phrase 'smells like the sex glands of a lemming'. Who in the world can relate to that?'
food + drinkRobert Parker's 100-point scale is a benchmark of achievement for wine-makers everywhere
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

    £6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

    Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

    Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

    £12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

    Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

    £32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

    Day In a Page

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing