Real champagne, sham champagne? A glass half full

Global demand for champagne is increasing so fast that the French authorities are expanding the area where it may be produced. This could mean untold riches for some – and a bitter harvest of envy for others. John Lichfield reports
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In Champagne, this is usually the quiet time. The grape harvest is over. The vineyards are deserted. The leaves on the vines are shrivelling into a spectacular collage of reds and yellows.

For a scattering of small towns and villages on the fringe of the champagne-producing region, this is not a quiet October. There is excitement in the misty, autumnal air. There is also suspense, jealousy and even anger.

Some of the villages are about to win a geological and meteorological lottery. Others, a few miles away, will miss out on the chance of a lifetime.

In the next few weeks, possibly in the next few days, a preliminary decision will be made on the biggest expansion of the champagne vineyards for 80 years.

Sales of champagne all around the world are fizzing. The existing vineyards have almost reached the limits of what they can produce without diluting the quality of the world's favourite celebratory drink. For the first time since the official boundaries were drawn in 1927, the land entitled to grow champagne grapes is to be significantly increased, by as much as 15 per cent by 2015.

Having your land reclassified as "eligible" for champagne grapes is like striking oil. Remember the song that introduced the Beverly Hillbillies, the 1960s television series about poor farmers who discovered oil in the Ozark hills? "Up through the ground came a bubbling crude..."

In the case of the hills of the Marne, about 60 miles east of Paris, it will be more like: "Up through the ground came a bubbling crus."

Some landowners will see the value of their land increase by 200-fold – or more. The owners of similar land a few yards away will gain nothing. The accidents of micro-geology and micro-climate – the contents of the sub-soil, the angle of slope of a field – will deny them a fortune.

Near the small town of Montmirail, in the gentle valley of the Petit Morin, Sylvie Le Brun farms 400 acres of land which includes several acres of rubbly, steep, south-facing slopes. These parts of the Ferme de la Grâce – "the Farm of Grace" – have always been back-breaking, unrewarding work for cereal growing or grazing.

"People say that only the Le Bruns would bother farming such land," she said.

This is, however, exactly the kind of land which is suitable for vineyards.

Montmirail is on the supposedly secret, preliminary list of 40 communes (towns or villages) chosen this month as "eligible" for champagne status. These communes have been chosen because they can prove that they grew grapes in the past and because their geography, and geology, compare closely with the 317 existing champagne villages. Until another team of experts studies the slopes and the qualities of the soil, and sub-soil, no one knows exactly which fields – if any – near Montmirail or the other 39 communes will be chosen.

"Some people are going to become very rich, that's clear, but there could also be a lot of problems," Mme Le Brun said. "There will be jealousy and tension between villages, between neighbours, within families and, potentially, between landowners and tenants. Imagine how you would feel if the new boundaries were drawn in such a way that they narrowly excluded your land, for no obvious reason?"

Mme Le Brun is not a landowner, but a tenant. If some of her fields are chosen, will her landlord allow her to plant vines? Or will he try to sell off the land? Having just two or three acres of vines could double Mme Le Brun's income from the whole farm.

Until the experts complete their survey, the only thing that is certain is that more champagne vineyards are needed. Sales of champagne, unlike those of many other French wines, are booming, especially among the noveaux riches middle classes of India (up 126 per cent last year), Russia and even China.

A few years from now, the existing champagne vineyards will no longer be able to cope with the demand. Unless production is increased, champagne-thirsty countries such as Britain (the biggest single foreign market) will face shortages and rising prices. The big champagne houses already complain that they could increase their annual sales by 10 per cent or more – if only they had enough grapes or bottles. After years of hesitation, and determined resistance from some growers, it was agreed earlier this year that new vineyards should be planted by 2015, to start producing champagne by 2017. A committee of experts was appointed.

Two weeks ago, the committee suggested that the coveted right to produce appellation contrôlée champagne should be extended to some, or all, of 40 communes on the outskirts of the traditional growing areas, mostly concentrated in the Marne around Rheims and Epernay but also in the Aube to the south. The claims of the Aisne to the west were largely ignored.

On 8 November – or maybe at its next meeting in February – the national body which governs appellation contrôlée wines will decide whether to accept, or amend, these recommendations. The Institut National des Appellations d'Origine (INAO) will then begin the much longer process of choosing which fields within each chosen commune are likely to be best suited to the production of champagne.

Wine grapes grow best in spartan soil, which forces the roots of the vines deep into the earth and rocks. Grapes also like sloping land which increases their exposure to the sun. The fields chosen will therefore be on the poorest agricultural land, now worth no more than €4,000 (£2,800) a hectare.

If officially given the right to produce champagne, the value of the land will rocket to €800,000 a hectare and maybe as much as €1m a hectare. (A hectare is about two and a half acres, or about one and a half football fields.)

Bernard Doucet, the gruff, big-hearted mayor of Montmirail, prefers not to talk about the fortunes that will be made. "I won't gain a centime. I don't have a single hectare," M. Doucet said cheerfully. He prefers to talk about the economic windfall which an extension of the champagne vineyards would bring to the whole of the economically struggling area of the western Marne (theatre of the bloody battles of August 1914 which stopped the German army's thrust towards Paris).

The mayor is anxious that Montmirail should not be seen to be counting its champagne bottles before the INAO hatches its final plans.

"Nothing is decided. You must say that. Nothing we can do now can influence the decision of the INAO ... All you can say is that we believe that we have a strong case. We have in the archives of the town hall, evidence that Montmirail had vendanges [wine harvests] as late as 1931. You can't have vendanges without having grapes. Where grapes grew once, we believe we have a case that they should grow again. But remember– and please write this down – it is the INAO which decides, not us."

M. Doucet had invited The Independent to discuss the issue in his office at the town hall. When we arrived, his four assistant mayors and the town hall clerk were also present. They insisted, at 11 in the morning, that we join them in chocolate biscuits and a glass of (excellent) champagne from the one existing, local wine-making village, Bergères-sous-Montmirail.

From the conversation which followed, several points emerged.

M. Doucet is also the president of a group of 18 communes close to Montmirail. He has been arguing for some, or all, of them to be restored to wine-growing status for the past decade. The whole of the area once grew wine but many villages did not recover from the outbreak of phylloxera, the parasitical insect which destroyed French vineyards in the late 19th century.

Growing champagne grapes was not the licence to print money in the 1920s that it is today. Many villages – including Montmirail –went over to cereals and beef or dairy farming.

It also emerges that several local villages did not respond to M. Doucet's efforts to gather historical proof of a wine-making history. Some of those villages are now protesting loudly that they have been left out of the provisional list of "eligible communes". Only three of the 18 local communes have been chosen.

One of the assistant mayors, Marie-Anne Duteil, said that extending the champagne vineyards could be wonderful for the area as a whole but "very difficult to take" for some villages and individuals.

"This is going to divide friends and even divide families," she said. "Imagine if brothers and sisters agreed to divide up inherited family land years ago – as is often the case. They now discover that one brother or sister is sitting on land which could be worth a fortune."

M. Doucet took us on a tour of Montmirail to see the gentle slopes to the east of the town. "This was once all grapes, all grapes," he said. "There is no one alive to remember it but we have records in the town hall that there were once 72 hectares [180 acres] of vineyards in Montmirail..."

Officially, the reasons for choosing the 40 "eligible" communes are secret. A glance at the map shows that the investigating committee has chosen mostly to fill in the blanks between existing champagne villages in Marne and Aube. The Aisne – often said to produce inferior grapes – has been ignored.

A group of 35 other villages, 25 miles to the north-west, just inside the département of the Aisne, has been campaigning to be given champagne appellation status for 20 years. Before the 1914-18 war, all these villages produced champagne. They were devastated by the battles of 1916-17 and did not replant their grapes in time for the official mapping of the vineyards in 1927.

They had high hopes of being allowed back into the enlarged champagne vineyards over the next eight years. To their disgust, only one village in the Aisne has been included in the provisional list.

Frans Labilloy is leader of a group of 350 landowners and winegrowers in the Aisne. He accuses the committee of experts, appointed by the champagne industry, of flagrant bias towards the Marne département.

"We are sickened and very angry ... champagne producers in the Aisne have always been treated as the poor relations," said M. Labilloy. "All independent studies show that we have the same sub-soil, the same soil, the same climate and the same angle of slopes as the Marne."

In the case of Montmirail and its two neighbouring "eligible" communes of Boissy-le-Repos and Le Thoult-Trosnay, there is an obvious geographical and geological logic to the choices.

All three have classic wine-producing south-facing slopes on the valley of the Petit Morin. All three are on a chalk ridge which extends from some of the most prized champagne vineyards, just south of Epernay.

Mme Le Brun, whose farm straddles the river, says that champagne status would be a "huge blessing". It would reverse the current trend towards young people leaving the area. She has one fear, however – a fear shared by many existing champagne growers. In the 1980s, the Bordeaux vineyards also extended their acreage to take advantage of booming world demand. The demand fell and ordinary Bordeaux is now in huge surplus and sells at rock-bottom prices.

"For the moment, no one else in the world has managed to produce a sparkling wine to match champagne," Mme Le Brun said. "But how long will that last? Will there be the same insatiable demand for champagne by the time that these new vineyards are producing wine in 2017?"

That is a problem for the future. The villages included among the chosen few next month will have every cause to celebrate wildly. Others will see no reason to open the champagne.