There can be no better time to visit Champagne than mid-October when the vineyards are resplendent in their Autumn colours and the the vignerons are relaxed and content having brought in a good vintage, in this case 2014. Consequently, an invitation to spend 3 days there in the company of other European Champagne Ambassadors was easy to accept.
Production in Champagne has grown from about 30 million bottles a year in 1950 to between 290 and 340 million a year now – dramatic growth, particularly considering the price level at which the wines sell. What’s more, with improvements in both vineyard management and technical know-how, quality has never been better or more consistent than it is now.
In the long term, the assiduous work that the Comité Champagne (CIVC) has put into protecting the name of Champagne against any sort of infringement of title would appear to have served Champagne well and built the foundations for sustained stability and even growth. In the short term, there are problems to resolve:
- 60% of Champagne sales are in France but this percentage has been falling in recent years and there are no signs at present that France is about to enter a new era of prosperity.
- The biggest export market, the UK, is still way ahead of other markets, but sales in recent years have been at best stable.
- With grape prices now up to over 6 euros per kilo, Champagne is becoming even more expensive to produce compared to its two main rivals, Prosecco and Cava.
- A strategic plan up to the year 2030 has been agreed, but there is as yet little detail on how the objectives are going to be achieved in practice.
- In many markets, less expensive sparkling wines such as Prosecco and Cava are growing at pace and it seems inevitable that some of those drinking these two sparkling wines may have been former Champagne buyers.
However the purpose of my recent visit, as a guest of Comité Champagne , was in part to demonstrate that Champagne is well placed to address the issues above.
- There is an energy and dynamism amongst younger growers in Champagne that mean that the region’s wines have never been more exciting nor diverse.
- Allied to increased use of social media and the opening of new routes to market, particularly over the internet, there should be sales opportunities for the majority of the small and mid-sized producers.
- The CIVC research laboratories continue to work towards a better understanding of different yeast strains, the process of autolysis and more efficient and economic means of cold stabilisation, to name but three examples.
- The viticultural research centre at Plumecoq maintains plantings of all the different clonal material used in the region and investigates different methods of trellising, ploughing and general vineyard management, such as organic and biodynamic. They also have trial plantings of foreign grapes which are high in acidity and might be required in the region if the current trend of climate change continues: grapes such as chenin blanc, feteascu alba, xynomavro and parellada.
The economic woes in many of Champagne’s key markets in recent years mean that confidence in the region is not at the same level as it was 10 years ago. As a result, the proposed expansion of the region seems to be very much on hold for the time being, at least until there is a more consistent balance between supply and demand. As for so many wine producing regions around the world, much depends on whether the Asians develop a taste for a particular wine. Given the Asians’ appetite for western brands, it is certainly possible that Champagne, the most heavily branded of all wine styles, can be reasonably confident of its prospects.
BYWine knows a thing or two about Champagne. Come to our tasting and find out, with us, how it matches with different styles of music.