France must dump a bumper bubbly crop

It's the best harvest in 300 years - but the equivalent of 100 million bottles is going to be poured down the sink
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On the lovely, misty slopes above Chouilly, home of fine champagne grapes - some say the finest - Philippe Gué stooped to pluck a bunch from the vine and offered one for tasting.

On the lovely, misty slopes above Chouilly, home of fine champagne grapes - some say the finest - Philippe Gué stooped to pluck a bunch from the vine and offered one for tasting.

"Now, as you see, the grapes themselves are not bigger than usual, but there are more on each bunch and they are absolutely stuffed with juice," said Mr Gué, 49, a small champagne producer just east of Epernay. "They are wonderfully sweet with just the right amount of acidity. I've never known a year like it. My father has never known a year like it."

The tiny chardonnay grapes explode in the mouth like little depth-charges of liquid honey with just a tang of sharpness - perfect for making champagne. And yet these grapes, excellent though they are, will never pop a cork or overflow a glass at a wedding or christening.

The grape harvest in Champagne is so abundant this year - the largest in the 300-year history of the world's most celebrated celebration wine - that many thousands of tons of grapes will be left to rot on the vine or on the ground. Others will be distilled into industrial alcohol.

The grape-picking or "vendange", which will finish this weekend, is 40 or 50 per cent up on a normal year: an extraordinary harvest, a fantastic harvest, according to growers and the big champagne-making houses, not just in quantity, but almost certainly in quality.

To cope with this torrent of champagne, the French government has agreed to lift, just a little, the legal limit on the weight of grapes that the growers are allowed to harvest from a hectare of land. Even so, many thousands of tons of grapes are being abandoned in the fields or taken off the market and distilled: the equivalent of more than 100 million bottles of champagne poured down the sink.

Why? Unlike many other French wines, champagne sales around the world are booming (especially in Britain, the biggest single export market). There is no champagne lake equivalent to the large surpluses of unsold, middle-range, unsparkling French wines elsewhere.

The Champagne region, in a "normal" year, produces only just enough to satisfy world demand (around 300 million bottles). As demand steadily grows, the champagne industry knows that it is likely soon to bump against the ceiling of how much it can produce under the present rules. To ensure quality - but also to keep up prices for the grape growers - the "appellation" system enforces limits on grape yields and restricts the area of land within Champagne which is allowed to grow the three varieties of champagne grapes (the white grape chardonnay and two black grapes, pinot noir and pinot meunier).

When sales pass these production limits - as they will in a couple of years - champagne prices will inevitably surge, to the delight of champagne's competitors from Italy to Australia. Why, then, refuse God's Bounty and destroy so much of this year's bumper crop? Mr Gué is a typical small producer: he sells half of his grapes to Veuve Clicquot and other big houses. The other half he makes into three grades of his own excellent champagne which he sells to personal callers in Chouilly, at up to €13 (£9) a bottle, half what you might pay in the shops for wine of similar quality.

"It makes our heart sick to destroy or distil so many wonderful grapes," Mr Gué said. "But in the long run it is in everyone's interests - producers and consumers - to keep up quality by setting limits on the weight of grapes that the land should normally be expected to produce."

The limit was originally set at 13 tons of grapes a hectare (roughly two and a half acres). The government has agreed to allow the limit to be raised to 14 tons a hectare. The actual yield this year has been nearer 20 tons of grapes a hectare - almost one third of which, the equivalent of over 100 million bottles of champagne, will be dumped or distilled.

Why has the harvest been so fantastically good? Ghislain de Montgolfier, the head of the great champagne house Bollinger told The Independent on Sunday: "It is jackpot year, when everything has gone right. We had a mild spring, with abundant flowers on the vine, an August with large amounts of rain, perfectly spread out through the month, and a warm, sunny September. On top of all that, the vines had been rested because we had such a poor crop last year. It is nature's way to compensate this year."

Mr de Montgolfier accepts that it is a "great paradox" that the champagne industry, which can barely keep up with demand, should be destroying so many excellent grapes. But he says that the rules make sense, because they ensure that the quality of the fruit remains high.

The real issue, Mr de Montgolfier says, is how to increase the area of land in which champagne grapes are allowed to be grown. But the growers, anxious to keep prices up, are resisting new vineyards. "At the present rate of discussions, it will take 10 years before new vines are ready," Mr de Montgolfier said. "By that time, we may have a serious problem with world demand for champagne."