Ahhhh, the French Champagne…

Despite what our friend Mr. Welles slurred in the above outtake, there legally is no such thing (in most countries, anyway) as Californian Champagne. Only sparkling wines originating from the French region of Champagne, according to the 1891 Treaty of Madrid and subsequently verified by numerous agreements over the years under various designation of origin laws, are allowed to designate themselves as ‘Champagne’. Most other wine-making countries recognise this; US laws allow wines produced before 10 March 2006 that had already used generics such as ‘champagne’, ‘port’, and ‘burgundy’ on their label to keep using it as long as their actual region of origin is also on the label; outside of the US, none of these wines are allowed to carry the designation. In the United Kingdom, there has been a recent release of ‘Britagne’ (pronounced bri-TAN-ya, as in ‘Britannia’), meant to signify a similarity between champagne and British sparkling wine while ensuring designation of origin laws aren’t violated.

Anbau_champagner

The area legally entitled to the Champagne appellation is highlighted in red.

As demand for Champagne has grown over past twenty years (338.7 million bottles were produced from region in 2007 alone), wine producers within the region have had to look at ways to expand production. The issue now is that all of the vineyard areas legally defined in 1927 as falling under the Champagne appellation have been planted (approximately 33 000 hectares). Between 2005 and 2008, l’Institut National des Appellations d’Origine (INAO), the agency that regulates French products with protected designation of origin status, conducted a study of the Champagne region and surrounding environs in order to determine additional areas that would be entitled to fall under the appellation based upon a range of criteria from geography and history to agronomy, phytosociology and geology. In March 2008 INAO proposed new boundaries for the region, adding 40 more communes to the grape production zone while removing two, leaving 357 grape communes in total (the number of communes in which Champagne could be made and matured was also increased by 41 to 675). In places added to the appellation, 2015 is the earliest expected date for planting (INAO must now spend time determining exactly which plots are suitable for growing), with the first product to be expected in 2021. Land values in the newly-added vineyards would soar by an average of 200 times their original value; added up, it would increase overall land values by billions of euro and make land owners quite rich. These numbers are all pending appeals from various vineyard owners, most notably in Germaine and Orbais-l’Abbaye, the two communes dropped from the appellation, but also existing owners worried about diluting the existing product. As one wine columnist notes, the 40 new villages don’t expands the boundaries of the region as much as they fill in existing gaps, as can be seen in before-and-after maps located here.

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The pre-2008 viticultural zones of Champagne. Source: DalGobboM, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Vignobles_champagne.png. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.

The right to hold the exclusive label has been treasured for decades. Back in January 1911, there were even riots in the area when, during a grape infestation that damaged thousands of hectares of crops, producers began paying to imports grapes from outside the region (even as far away as Germany and Spain), rather than pay higher prices for local grapes in short supply. It came to a head when disgruntled mobs of wine growers intercepted trucks transporting grapes from outside the region and pushed them into the Marne. The mob then turned on the homes of prominent house producers in the village of Aÿ, and by the next morning, the entire village was on fire.

Another indication of the value of the Champagne label relates to the town of Champagne, Switzerland, where wine is also produced. When Switzerland and the European Union came to an agreement on designation of origin laws in 2004, the Champagne name was no longer available to wine makers in the Swiss town despite the fact that the town has been named Champagne since at least 885. Yearly sales of wine produced in the village immediately dropped from 110 000 to 32 000.

Further Reading

Arora, S. (2011). British ‘Champagne’ may be named as ‘Britagne’. Indian Wine Academy, 5 July 2011. Available at http://www.indianwineacademy.com/item_5_458.aspx. Accessed 5 July 2011.

BBC News (2008). Swiss town fights Champagne ban. Available at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/7332473.stm. Accessed 5 July 2011.

Bremner, C. (2008). Champagne region expanded to meet world demand. The Times (London), 14 March 2008. Available at http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/food_and_drink/wine/article3548465.ece. Accessed 5 July 2011.

Kevany, S. (2008). New Champagne areas defined. Decanter, 14 March 2008. Available at http://www.decanter.com/news/wine-news/485939/new-champagne-areas-defined. Accessed 5 July 2011.

Kevany, S. (2008). Winners and losers revealed in Champagne shake-up. Decanter, 14 March 2008. Available at http://www.decanter.com/news/wine-news/485938/winners-and-losers-revealed-in-champagne-shake-up. Accessed 5 July 2008.

Stevenson, T. (2008). I have six billion euros. Who will give me twelve? Wine-Pages, September 2008. Available at http://www.wine-pages.com/guests/tom/champagne-expansion.htm. Accessed 5 July 2011.

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