Approaching full capacity
Raising permitted yields in Champagne is a controversial but necessary step, discovers Giles Fallowfield
27 August, 2008
Over the past 10 years Champagne consumption has only exceeded production twice, in 1997 and 2003. In the latter year the average yield across the appellation was 8,251kg/ha due to the summer drought and just 219.12 million bottles were produced while more than 293.3 million bottles were shipped: a deficit o f 74 million bottles. Although production exceeded consumption by a similar amount in 2000 and 2004, if we take a 10-year average from 1997 to 2006, the figure drops to 22.6 million bottles a year.
The Champenois always like to store away at least three times the increase in sales in any given year - and consumption rose by 14 million bottles in 2006 - and therefore they don't view this as enough to meet rising demand. They'd like it to be at least 42 million bottles, but would still prefer a little more.
With nearly all the vineyard within the currently defined Champagne appellation planted - there are just 1,250ha due to come on stream in the four harvests between 2008 and 2011 which should add between 12 million and 15 million bottles to production - the Champenois have come up with two solutions. In the short term between now and 2011 they will raise yields and in the long term expand the appellation.
With this in mind, at the harvest meeting between growers and the négociants that took place on July 23, it was decided to allow producers this year to pick up to the new maximum allowed yield of 15,500kg/ha. If this average is reached across the Champagne AOC's estimated 32,500ha of productive vineyard, theoretically 420 million bottles of Champagne could be produced - 45 million above the previous high of 2004.
This new level of yield is permitted under the new agreement with the Institut National d'Appellations d'Origine (INAO), which runs for an experimental period of five harvests (2007-2011). In reality, even if this high level is reached, which towards the end of picking in mid-September looks increasingly unlikely (see harvest report page 44), initially only some 340 million bottles will be produced. This is because the base yield is set at 12,400kg/ha, which equates to 340 million bottles. However vineyard owners - principally the 15,000 or so individual growers who farm just over 90 per cent of Champagne's total vineyard while the big houses own slightly less than 10 per cent - have the option of producing up to a further 3,100kg/ha depending on the level of wine they already have in their "réserve individuelle".
The idea is that between 2007 and 2011, growers will be encouraged to build up the volume of wine they hold in this réserve individuelle to a maximum of 8,000kg/ha. If they currently hold 4,700kg/ha or less, they will be able to pick up to the maximum 15,500kg/ha this year.
Prior to the 2007 harvest the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC) has confirmed that the average réserve individuelle is 2,680kg/ha and if sufficient grapes are available on the vines this would not stop the extra 3,100kg/ha being picked. But some of the growers may have reserves closer to the maximum 8,000 kg/ha, which is equivalent to roughly half a harvest.
The Champenois want primarily to build reserves up to this level in case of a major problem with any particular harvest, so they would still have sufficient wine to produce more than 300 million bottles (even with a yield as low as 4,000kg/ha). But it is becoming clear that this reserve may also be used to increase production over and above the present level if demand keeps on rising at a rate that cannot be satisfied by the area of vineyard now in production.
The négociants also hope once the growers have this 8,000kg/ha in their reserves and know there is little danger of their income plunging as a result of such a natural disaster, they will take a more conservative and responsible view about grape prices, which have risen at an alarming rate in recent years (more than e5/kg for grand crus) from the négoce point of view.
The problem for the Champenois, as the 2007 harvest looks likely to demonstrate, is they can't control nature. So while raising yields to address the supply problem, even in the short term, works on paper, they won't know if it will actually work until after the harvest is in. And while in the past three years (2004-06) the average yield has risen to 13,279kg/ha, over the past 10 years (1997-06) it reached only 11,889kg/ha.
If demand continues to grow quickly a decision on expanding the vineyard needs to be made soon. Alternatively, with Champagne houses increasingly shifting focus towards their "added value" ranges, perhaps the Champenois should consider leaving the sub-£20 territory to the growing band of quality sparkling wines being produced in other parts of the world.
----=== Actual average yield achieved in Champagne appellation over the past ten harvests 1997-2006 ===== Year Average yield (kg/ha) ==
Source: Compiled by Giles Fallowfield using CIVC statistics----
=== Actual Champagne yield over past 10 harvests ===== Year Average yield (kg/ha) ==
Compiled by using CIVC statistics