FRANCE is poised for the biggest expansion of Champagne vineyards in almost a century to cope with soaring global demand for bubbly – with land values set to increase by billions of pounds.
During the past ten years, production from the 35,000 hectares of the Champagne region has been 330 million bottles a year. Last year, demand hit 333 million bottles in the 12 months to August 2007 – 11 million more than the previous year.
The UK high street is expected to announce anywhere between a 20 to 40 per cent increase in Champagne sales when figures are collated in January, according to analysts.
Last year broke all records, with many wine merchants reporting that they had to raid valuable vintages from cellars to satisfy demand.
The only sparkling wine anywhere in the world that merits the name Champagne must be made from grapes grown on officially designated land in France. The specifications have not altered significantly since they were laid down in 1927.
Champagne-producing houses want guaranteed long-term access to more of the pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier vines used to make the wine, while farmers and landowners not on Champagne-designated land hope to join the exclusive club.
French government-appointed experts drew up a secret list in October designating 40 communities for possible addition to the 319 communes that already benefit from the designation Appellation d'Origine Contr'le. It is understood the expansion is likely to be given the go-ahead late next year, making the first crop available by 2011, thus raising production in the 4 billion-a-year industry in the short term to 430 million bottles.
The value of farmland for Champagne grape-growing is at least 200 times more than that of land where crops such as wheat and beets are grown, according to Daniel Lorson, a spokesman for the Interprofessional Committee of the Wines of Champagne, a trade organisation.
Tom Stevenson, the British author of World Encyclopedia of Champagne and Sparkling Wine estimated that between 3,000 and 12,000 acres will be added. That, he said, could generate up to nearly 5 billion for landowners.
Mr Stevenson, the world's leading authority on the wines of Champagne and Alsace, said: "Since the announcement of 40 new communes, the champenois have been accused of greed by the press and hypocrisy by consumers. However, even at this late stage, it is possible for Champagne to avoid most of the flak and produce a squeaky-clean expansion.
"These 40 communes will not become part of Champagne's Zone de Production before 2009, and only after this will the independent experts be allowed to consider precisely which areas should be cultivated.
"Although any new land is supposed to conform to certain criteria, such as soil, subsoil and exposure, nothing is quantified and, amazingly, no minimum requirements have been set."
Demand for bubbly has been outstripped by supply for the past decade, with Champagne imitators from Russia, India and even the UK filling the gap.
CONSUMPTION of Champagne in Britain has quadrupled since 1970, making it the world's largest importer of the drink. Almost 36 million bottles a year are drunk in the UK.
Other countries in the European Union have refrained from drinking so much Champagne. With Spanish cava, Italian spumanti and German Seckt, these countries prefer to stick to their own alternatives.
But China has doubled its imports in the past three years, while Japan has posted a 37 per cent increase over the same period.