Judging by the increasing amount of Christmas items for sale in dollar stores, fall is approaching. And when wine lovers think of fall, they think of refurbishing their cellar with bubbles. The wine market globalization opened the way for sparkling wines from across the world, wines of such quality and affordable prices that they could have had Champagne shaking in its boots, if not for this beverage’s already solid reputation and near-immediate association with celebration. But if the original sparkling wine did not seem, from the outside, to suffer from this outbreak, the reality was entirely different. Champange’s situation is rather unique and, one must admit, problematic: with prices already targeting the luxury market, and therefore difficult to raise, and an offer that’s almost impossible to increase as well, things are not exactly easy for Champagne. The CIVC has even determined, a few years ago, points of intervention that, according to its constituents, would guarantee Champagne’s place among luxury wines, all the while aiming at a certain growth. In the next few paragraphs, we will look head on at Champagne’s issues, and the solutions it wishes to bring. Being on top, for some, does not mean sitting on one’s laurels.
INCREASING THE PLANTABLE SURFACE?
Champagne’s main problem is to meet a growing demand without compromising product quality. There exists two territorial divisions in Champagne: first, there is the aire délimitée, which corresponds to the geographical zone on which champagne can be produced; then there is the zone de production, which corresponds to the actual vine-planted surface and on which winemaking and maturation facilities can be found. Why should we make a distinction between the two? Simple: to preserve the product’s identity.
ChampagneMs vines grow essentially on two types of soils: chalk and Kimmeridgean marl (same soil as in Chablis). But these soils are not found all over the Champagne region. Best example is Valley of the Marne, this near-perfect “V” that zigzags between Paris and Épernay along the river; near the water, alluvial soils are not planted in vine, but atop the slopes, where a chalky line is hidden under various types of soils, you will mainly find Pinot Meunier vines, with some Chardonnay and Pinot Noir here and there. Producing grapes along the river would change the aromatic profile of the wines too much so it is a non-starter.
But here’s the rub: within the aire de production, pretty much everything that’s already either chalk or Kimmeridgean mark is already planted in vine.No room for anything else. So to produce more wine, the yield cap must be increased, or the weight of grapes required to produce one hectolitre of wine must be reduced.But high yields and heavily pressed grapes hardly ever rhyme with better juice, so there is a loss in quality. And for Champagne, in a market that’s more and more competitive (we will touch on that later), that’s out of the question.
The solution? Increase the aire de production, and not only maintain current yield and pressing limits, but make them more strict, so as to make no compromise on quality. Since 2003, about forty villages within the aire délimitée are being looked at to be added to Champagne’s aire de production. A thorough geological study has been made to determine if soils are of the appropriate nature to produce champagne. Some villages have already gotten the nod, with others waiting, but a three–year embargo has been imposed to whoever will receive CIVC and INOQ’s blessings before any vine can be planted. This way, in the next few years, there may be a little more champagne produced. But the problem does not end there…
DEMEURER AU SOMMET, RESTER COMPÉTITIFS
Despite the geographical limits Champagne faces, it managed to increase its production by a quarter in the last forty years. However, during the same period, the average price of champagne rose by less than 5%. The reason is simple: many countries, like Australia, the United States, Spain and Italy, have managed to make themselves an enviable niche on the sparkling wine market, by increasing the quality of their wines, the majority of which are made using the traditional method, hailing from Champagne, at ridiculous prices compared to the mother region. This way, ex-Champagne sparklers have made themselves a niche and stole the hearts of consumers wishing to celebrate lesser events or in a more modest fashion.
Champagne faces a choice: either lower its price and risk losing its luxury product status, or stay the course, staying in the premium price bracket, but risking to lose market shares if quality did not follow suit.
Champagne’s response was simple: Champange’s reputation and prices must remain intact. that, yet again, meant increasing production quality, while going on a marketing campaign to maintain Champagne’s high-end image in the light of the attack perpetrated by Cava, Prosecco and Tutti Quanti.
On the other hand, there exists a lobby that wishes Champagne adopted a classification system of its growths much like that of Burgundy; instead of seeing villages being named premier or grand cru, specific plots would be awards, for their particularities, this seal of excellence. It is easy to defend that such a classification, more complex and targeted, would allow Champagne to keep its status with little to no effort. So to speak.
Few regions work as hard as Champagne to maintain the superior quality status. Much different than Bordeaux, where laurels are long-imprinted with the biggest players’ ass groove. Some say the hardest thing to do is staying on top once you’ve reached it. Champagne gets this, and it works hard to keep the race lead. The day has not come where the region will be complacent enough to celebrate its success with its own bubbles.