The Regional Economy and Wine Market
The release of Champagne’s economic data from the Comité Champagne for 2018 shows that the region remains in an enviable position. Champagne’s 33,843 ha of vineyards produce wines with the second highest export turnover in the French wine and spirits sector (just 4% of the vineyard plantings but 22% of export value), well ahead of Bordeaux. Sales to the two leading Champagne markets, France itself and the UK, continued to decline between 2017 and 2018 (a combined decline of -4.1%), as they had in the previous year, too — in the case of the UK by 11% in 2016-2017. This, though, was more than offset by rising sales to more distant export markets such as the USA (now Champagne’s largest export market by value), South Africa (+38.4%), Singapore (+15.3%) and Russia (+13.1%).
Champagne’s 340 houses remain in a dominant market position, with over 70% of all Champagne sales; the 16,000 growers saw their percentage of direct sales decline slightly, to 18.2% (this figure reached 25.5% in 2009); the cooperative sector’s share of sales rose slightly to 9.2% (Champagne has 140 co-operatives). Growers still hold most ultimate power in the region, though, since they own 90% of the vineyard land.
Non-vintage Brut Champagne still accounts for 79.3% of all export Champagne shipped (and for 65.8% of export Champagne sales in terms of value). Rosé Champagne sales now account for 9.9% of export volumes and 11.8% of export value; while Prestige Cuvées account for 4.8% of export volumes but 16.2% of export value. Demi-sec, Extra Brut and Brut Nature sales are all rising, too, confirming greater diversity in the Champagne offer. Champagne represents 10% of all the sparkling wine drunk globally, but 36% of the value of that sparkling wine.
Price of Land
The average price of vineyard land in Champagne in 2016 was 1,113,500€/ha — the highest regional vineyard average land price in France. Vineyard land prices have quadrupled since 1993 in Champagne. A plan to revise the growing area of the Champagne AOC was submitted in 2008, suggesting the extension of planting rights from 319 to 357 villages. This is a matter of some controversy, though, and so far there have been no changes made to the growing area. In-depth studies on existing and potential future parcels are continuing.
In the Vineyard
The European Union’s Plant, Animals, Food and Feed (PAFF) committee is planning on reducing to use of copper in vineyards and elsewhere over the next seven years (2018-2025) from 6 kg/ha/year to 4 kg/ha/year, due to concerns about the environmental impact of this heavy metal. This is set to affect organic growers particularly badly, especially in mildew-prone regions like Champagne, as there is currently no organic alternative to the use of copper sulphate — though the Champagne region itself claims it has reduced the level of ‘phytosanitary products’ (fungicides and insecticides) by 50% since 2000.
One possible solution for regions like Champagne is the use of recovery panels on the spraying equipment. These permit the recovery and re-use of up to 80 per cent of the copper in sprays. It may only be a temporary solution, though: this is intended to be the last extension to the planned total elimination of copper for agricultural use in the EU.
Organic and biodynamic approaches to vineyard cultivation continue to make headway in Champagne. Leading grower-producers have long advocated such approaches (some with certification, some without), but Champagne houses with major vineyard estates of their own are now among the most vocal adherents – notably Roederer, half of whose 240 ha estate (supplying 80% of its grape needs) is now cultivated biodynamically, with certification for 10 ha.
Climate change, Champagne growers fear, may pose an existential challenge to the region: budbreak, flowering and harvest dates are growing earlier, wild weather is disrupting growing seasons (see WSG Vintage Charts for details of the chaotic growing season of 2017), and the vital levels of natural acidity in the musts are dropping. Five harvests out of the last 15 have begun in August.
What are the solutions? Some Champagne houses (such as Taittinger and Vranken Pommery) have begun investments in UK vineyards. The CIVC (Comité Interprofessionnel des Vins de Champagne) has a long-term research project aimed at crossing the three main Champagne varieties with ‘super-gene’ alternatives, using marker-assisted selection techniques, to endow the resulting hybrids with disease resistance and later ripening traits with no loss of finesse and character. Other solutions, like earlier picking or the blocking of the malolactic fermentation, have drawbacks as well as benefits.
After very ripe seasons, Champagne houses may begin to make more still Coteaux Champenois wine as well as Champagne, though there is little sign of this yet and the market appeal of Coteaux Champenois remains restricted.
A final note on sustainability: Champagne vineyards produce little waste. Of the 120,000 tonnes of vine wood and physical by-products of Champagne production, 75% is returned directly to the soils in ground form and 25% is burned, recovering 0.5 tonnes of oil equivalent/ha. The Champagne carbon footprint dropped by 15% between 2003-2013, and the region is aiming for a reduction of 25% on 2003 levels by 2025 and 75% on 2003 levels by 2075. In 2010, the official Champagne bottle was lightened from 900g to 835g; this saves 8,000 tonnes of CO2/yr.
In the Cellar
The two key trends in Champagne wine cellars concern the extent to which oxidative or reductive wine-making processes are used in winemaking, and the level of sweetening added to wine in the liqueur de dosage with which Champagne wines are finished after disgorgement.
There is no doubt that some level of controlled oxidation during Champagne wine-making and ageing techniques can add complexity to the finished wine. Examples from leading houses would include the use of wood-fermented base and reserve wines in the creation of complex blends such as Krug’s Grand Cuvée, or the ageing of reserve wines under cork at Bollinger. Many leading Champagne growers (notably the celebrated Anselme Selosse) make comprehensive use of wood (and, more recently, clay jars).
However, the majority of Champagne is still produced in a manner which protects the wine from oxygen throughout its journey to the glass, though key winemakers such as Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon of Roederer stress that this is not a ‘reductive’ style. He describes his wines as having “a spring bouquet, not an autumn bouquet. We don’t like oxidation at Roederer; we want everything pristine. No reduction, no oxidation: as if it came from the vineyard.”
Champagne is also getting dryer: Extra Brut and Brut Nature Champagnes (6 g/l or less) have seen sales grow 35.4% by volume over the last decade, with levels of growth of these styles of Champagne particularly strong in export markets and among Champagne connoisseurs. Key ‘Brut’ brands are getting dryer, too. Dom Pérignon formerly contained 10 g/l sugar after dosage; now it is 7 g/l, with 5 g/l for Oenothèque releases.
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