A Tempest in a Champagne Flute
MAYOR SERGE MOUSSEAUX may run one of the poorest city halls in France. A lifelong farmer, he governs this village of 50 people from a three-room structure whose only adornments are the shredded flags of France and the European Union. But behind the building is a hiding place that for Mr. Mousseaux holds the key to prosperity.
It is here, in a troglodyte 穴居 limestone cave, that Mr. Mousseaux, 66, keeps hundreds of bottles of the fizzy wine he makes from his grapes. One day, he hopes to call it Champagne. At an impromptu, non-Champagne tasting at City Hall, he held up a glass of his creation. “Look at the fizz, the tininess of the bubbles!” he exclaimed. “That is magic, poetry — so different from what big Champagne houses do.”
Under French law, the only sparkling wine anywhere in the world that merits the name Champagne with a capital C must be made from grapes grown on officially designated plots of land in France.
But as global demand for Champagne soars, pressure is mounting to expand Champagne country. Champagne-producing houses want guaranteed long-term access to more of the pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier vines that are used to make the real thing. Farmers and landowners who are not on Champagne-designated land hope to join the exclusive club of insiders.
To that end, a team of French government-appointed experts drew up a secret list last October designating 40 communities — communes — for possible addition to the 319 communes with the designation Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, or A.O.C., a convoluted if coveted certification that authenticates the content, method and origin of production of a French agricultural item.“原產地命名控制”（AOC）法國消費者很重視產品的產地。“原產地命名控制”標識是最古老的辦法。這種辦法創立於1935年，只有擁有地理概念上的原產地特色的產品，才能獲得這種標識。http://tw.myblog.yahoo.com/hcdeming/article?mid=26
If approved, the initiative would start the largest expansion of Champagne vineyards in eight decades.
The list was promptly leaked by the local newspaper of Reims, setting off waves of protest, calls for justice and heated speculation about who might strike it rich. Mr. Mousseaux’s fields, for example, were left out. Only one community in Aisne, the region where his land is located, was included.
“This is incomprehensible,” said Mr. Mousseaux, whose family has grown grapes and other crops on the stony, spare earth here for generations. “We have exactly the same soil as the areas that were chosen, the same sun, the same beautiful hills. This land is so perfect that the grapes even grow wild in our gardens.”
Even though his land is only six miles from official Champagne-producing territory, he is an outsider, forbidden to sell what he informally calls Vin de Serval. He seals his bottles with metal bottle caps; Champagne-like corks are expensive.
For several years, he has been part of a lobby of 350 retired and active farmers — with the unwieldy name the Association for the Delimitation of a Champagne Vineyard and AOC Champagne Hills in the Valleys of the Aisne and the Vesle — whose goal is to expand Champagne-growing onto their farmland.
The association keeps a file of decades-old photos of fields of Champagne grapes and receipts proving delivery of his family’s grapes to an official Champagne-making house as recently as 1962, an era when legal controls were less rigidly enforced.
But others involved in redrawing France’s Champagne map take a harder line, saying the decision is much more complicated than the size of bubbles.
They dismiss farmers like Mr. Mousseaux as hopeless romantics who understand little about the five criteria involved in the current investigation: Champagne’s history, geography, geology, agronomy and an obscure field called phytosociology, the study of plant communities.
“It’s like the Miss World contest, all the contestants think they are the most beautiful,” said Ghislain de Montgolfier, the departing president of Bollinger and the head of the Union of Champagne Houses, the Champagne makers’ trade group. “I’m good friends with some of these farmers, but I tell them that old rules are not the criteria. We now have a fixed juridical and scientific system that is more rational. So there are going to be some who win, and some who lose.”
The main reason there is so much furor over the Champagne expansion is that so much money is at stake. The value of farmland for Champagne grape-growing is at least 200 times more than that of land where crops like wheat and beets grow, according to Daniel Lorson, spokesman for the Interprofessional Committee of the Wines of Champagne, a professional trade organization. Tom Stevenson, the British author of “World Encyclopedia of Champagne and Sparkling Wine” (Wine Appreciation Guild, 2003), estimated in an analysis in November that based on the location of the 40 proposed new communes, between 3,000 and 12,000 acres will be added. That, he said, could create up to nearly $9 billion of wealth for landowners.
Historically, grape-growing was not a ticket to wealth in this part of France. Many areas never recovered from phylloxera, the parasitic insect that destroyed vineyards in the 19th century, and then from the devastation of World War I.
Between the end of World War I and 1927, many mayors did not want their villages to be part of Champagne country because landowners tended to be aristocrats rather than businessmen. Besides, grain, dairy and cattle farming was more profitable.
The definition of the Champagne region came with a 1927 law that considered the quality of the soil, groundwater levels and exposure to the sun. The area has expanded haphazardly over the years to more than 79,000 acres today. In 1990, for example, the village of Fontaine-sur-Ay was quietly added without any fuss, because it had seemed like the logical thing to do.
“People started to ask why was Champagne status given to one commune and not another,” said Hervé Briand, an associate director of the National Institute of Appellations of Origin, the governmental agency in charge of food and drink quality in France. “It made us realize we had to have a global approach.”
Most official Champagne-designated land already had been planted, and demand in the $6 billion-a-year industry was increasing, particularly from new markets including Russia, China and India. So four years ago, the institute ordered a study on the expansion question.
Certainly there will be no new overnight millionaire farmers. If the National Institute decides to accept the initial recommendations, there will be a year-long public inquiry, in which all interested parties can object and lobby.
Then come the most difficult decisions. In 2009 at the earliest, the specific Champagne-worthy parcels of land will be chosen.
In principle, their topsoil will have to be light and not too fertile, their subsoil chalky, their slopes facing south. The fields must not be too vulnerable to frost or too close to forests. To maintain quality, the maximum volume of production per acre is laid down by law every year.
The first new vineyards probably will not be planted for several years, with the first harvest coming sometime after 2015.
For the most part, the 40 proposed communes fill in holes in existing Champagne areas, much of it near the Champagne centers of Reims and Épernay, rather than extending the perimeter. For reasons that have yet to be explained, Germaine and Orbais-l’Abbaye, two of the villages in the Marne region that currently enjoy Champagne-growing status, would be thrown out.
Complicating matters, identities of the government-appointed experts who chose the 40 communes are secret, raising suspicions about their impartiality.
“Nothing is quantified and amazingly, no minimum requirements have been set,” Mr. Stevenson wrote in his analysis. “This is how and where it could all go pear-shaped, because Champagne’s continued success depends on maintaining its reputation, which is already under threat due to the bad timing of its expansion.”
Officials at the big Champagne houses barely disguise their glee at the eventual expansion. “We are very serene, very unperturbed,” said Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger, managing director of the giant Taittinger Champagne house, which has lobbied for the change for more than two decades. “It’s so obviously logical.”
Some farmers in areas that are on the list, however, are reluctant to celebrate just yet.
Noël Maury, for example, and his brother grow grapes for Champagne on 12 acres of land in the communities of Broyes and Fontaine-Denis. They use half of their crop to produce various types of Champagnes every year under their own label, and sell the other half to the spirits giant G. H. Martel & Co.
They also grow wheat, rapeseed and beets on hundreds of acres on a plot higher up the hill in the adjacent community of Péas, one of the 40 potential new Champagne communes.
“People in town are talking about winning the lottery, but we have no idea how the experts did their work or which pieces of land will be chosen,” Mr. Maury said as he showed a visitor the two very different fields. “I expect it will only be a tiny percentage. I prefer to be very, very, very prudent and wait and be happy later on, than to celebrate now and be disappointed.”
Paradoxically, even if the proposal proceeds, some outsiders, like Mr. Mousseaux, would benefit, by being freed from a frustratingly French Catch-22.
Now, he cannot sell his wine because he is in a larger “zone of production” that bans any wine except Champagne from being made. The plan would redraw the zone’s borders to eliminate Serval and other communes.
Mr. Mousseaux could then sell his product as “vin mousseux,” sparkling wine.