In focus: The relationship between supply and demand in Champagne

Transformed landscape

Barillère of the UMC recalls how the viticultural landscape in Champagne has been transformed in 20 years, moving from spraying chemicals as an insurance policy to only applying them if they are needed.

“The quality of the spraying machinery is roughly 50% more efficient than it was,” he adds. “Moreover, every time we have an alternative to using chemicals, we’re doing it, such as using sexual-confusion techniques to fight insects.”

In the winery and packaging side of the business, environmental concerns are also at the forefront. In 2010, the Comité Champagne introduced a lighter Champagne bottle for non-vintage cuvées, weighing almost 60g less than the original. The industry body estimated that the new bottle would save the equivalent of 8,000 metric tons of carbon a year.

Producers are also implementing recycling- and waste-management practices, such as Pol Roger, which has installed a filtration system that recycles water from its winery.

Michel Drappier, however, believes that other investments are often prioritised over those that achieve a longer-term return. “The problem in Champagne is that there are shareholders and you want to please them and make them money rather than investing in things that can take decades to get your money back,” he says.

“We are carbon neutral and we’re still the only one in Champagne. I would have thought many more people would have done it – it’s not out of reach, and I’m surprised we’re still the only one.”

Champagne has reduced the volume of fertilisers used on its vineyards by 50% in the past 50 years, while organic certification is one the rise. But being green means that sacrifices must be made.

Drappier adds: “Yields decrease when you initially convert to organics, and while they will go up again, we are never going to achieve the yields that my father did in the 1960s and ’70s when the land was permanently pushed by fertilisers.”

Bruno Paillard

Yields could rise, however, if the vineyard area of Champagne is increased. The AOC boundary was set in 1927 and covers 130 square miles.

“A movement that has its roots in the 1980s and 1990s aims to revise the boundary to potentially include up to 45 districts that once grew grapes before the ravages of phylloxera and the destruction caused by World War I. The vineyard area in Champagne was once twice the size of what it is today,” says Paillard. “It was decided that those villages that can prove historical evidence of quality grape growing could be reintroduced into the AOC.”

Recent reports have indicated that a decision could be made by 2024, but producers remain unconvinced. Even if a decision is made in five years’ time to include, and also potentially exclude, some areas, it will not have any immediate impact.

Leroux adds: “If a decision is made, when will the first grapes be planted? Which villages/crus will benefit from the potential plantation rights? Which part of the newly authorised village can be planted? It will take at least 15 years before we’re able to observe the results of the potential expansion.”

Therefore, at least for now, there’s one less factor in the equation. The relationship between supply and demand, and volume and value in Champagne is a complex one. A concerted effort has been made to raise the average price of a bottle, and this appears to be paying off. But in an increasingly competitive market, the region can no longer rely solely on its name to deliver the goods.

* This feature originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of the drinks business magazine.

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