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Champagne Appellation - No Second Chance

Jiles Halling,
UK’s leading Champagne host

One of the weird things about champagne is the tangle of rules and regulations surrounding the production of this world-famous wine.

You probably know already that In France they have a system of what is known as Appellations, which broadly speaking, define the geographical area in which each type of wine can be made.

Wines that have been approved under this system can put the letters AOC on the label (Appellation d'Origine Controllée) or similar. Here's a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc from Touraine and you'll see the label says Appellation Touraine Contrôlée

( Yes I do occasionally drink something other than champagne.... but not that often)

The AOC system seems all very logical and easy to understand. In fact many other countries have a similar system.

Now here's the first thing that's odd about champagne - you'll never find the letters AOC on a champagne label, not because the wine in the bottle has been made outside the designated area, but because the word Champagne itself (which must by law appear on any genuine bottle of champagne is considered enough on its own to prove where it came from.

But it gets weirder, as was vividly demonstrated to me only yesterday....

In Champagne (capital C for the Region and small c forthe wine, by the way) the appellation covers about 34,000 hectares of vineyards from which grapes can be used to make champagne (That's around 84,000 acres).

In fact the vineyards are spread out in an area that measures about 120 kilometres square so you can understand that the majority of the land in this area is not planted with vineyards.

But why not when it's clearly so profitable to plant vines, grow grapes and make champagne?

Well, some of the explanations are obvious: there's a town there already, there's a river, a road, a railway line, a forest etc running right through the middle.

Next you can consider what's called the micro climate: this particular area is prone to frost and would be too cold for vines; another area is too elevated and would also be too cold.

So you gradually whittle down the area that is just right for growing champagne grapes, but even then there are still dozens of anomalies.

The fact of the matter is that you can have two plots of land right next door to each other and on one you'll find a vineyard whilst next door - where you have exactly the same conditions - vines are not permitted. I think you'll agree that this could be pretty annoying for the guy who owns the plot where you can't plant vines.

The whole saga goes back to 1927 when the rules were laid down and, to cut a long story short, the area that was defined then, has, to all intents and purposes, never been altered.

Back then mind you, it was tough being a vigneron and growing grapes.

In the very early 1900s an aphid called Phylloxera had wiped out pretty much all the vineyards in Europe, including Champagne. The industry was on its knees and then there was the Great War, so by 1927 the prospect of growing grapes for a living wasn't all that attractive to a lot of people, so when asked to register their plots of land as part of the new Champagne appellation, they simply didnt bother.

What went in the books in 1927 has never been altered, so there has never been a second chance for those who missed out.

They (or rather their descendants) will be kicking themselves now, - at between 500,000 and 1,500,000 euros per hectare of vines this is valuable land we're talking about - but at the time it was more understandable and that's one reason why you can find two pieces of land, right next to each other, and one's in the Appellation whilst the other is not.

Here's a picture taken in a small vineyard belonging to Bollinger which will show you what I mean.

This is a very special plot indeed and here the grapes are grown for some of the most rare and expensive bottles of champagne of them all. Yet you can see that the vines stop two thirds of the way down the slope.

If these grapes are so precious, why not plant the entire plot? After all, the soil and everything else must be the same, it's all enclosed within the same garden wall for goodness sake !

Alas No.

In 1927 the unplanted area in the foreground formed part of a garden belonging to a house that has since been demolished, so the garden was never registered as being in the Appellation and now it's too late.

Even for a champagne house with the prestige and influence of Bollinger those rules and not for breaking.

There must be a moral in here somewhere. Perhaps "He Who Hesitates Is Lost"?

Stay Bubbly


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