More Champagne!

Paul Blow

“I drink it when I’m happy and when I’m sad.” —Lily Bollinger, of Bollinger Champagne

Bottles are being popped for both reasons in the Champagne region since the French government made public its plans to expand the boundaries of the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, or AOC, the official Champagne-producing region.

World demand for Champagne has grown so much that the French must expand production. In 2007, exports grew for the seventh straight year, up 7.3 percent to 338.7 million bottles. Official AOC status is being given to 40 new communities, or communes, meaning that they can grow Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, or Pinot Meunier that can go into bottles officially designated Champagne. Two communes—Germaine and Orbay l’Abbaye—are losing their AOC status. The new land becoming AOC will rise in value from about $5,000 a hectare (2.5 acres) to about $1.5 million. And the land that loses its status will go back to just being dirt.

It will be a long time before you taste any of this new Champagne. But by 2015 it’s predicted that the new land will be producing grapes.

Should we care about this? We’re so often given the terroir spiel when it comes to French wine—it seems suspiciously convenient that they can just redraw these so-called sacred (and high-stakes) boundaries when they need more wine. But since the very first official definition of the Champagne region in 1927, it has been expanded willy-nilly over the decades. In fact, some of the villages being added now refused the status in the 1960s because wheat and beets were more profitable then than grapes. Since Champagne has really taken off in the last 40 years, however, they’ve been lobbying to get back in.

So in the end, it shouldn’t affect the quality of Champagne. What the expansion amounts to is a PR headache for the region. Tom Stevenson, author of the World Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine, wrote recently in Harpers that the expansion should have occurred in the past couple of decades when the accusations of greed would have been less charged: “[O]nly an idiot would deny that the timing sucks.”

While we wait to see what the effect of this may be, here’s a present-day Champagne to try:

Pierre Peters “Cuvée de Réserve” Brut NVFrom the town of Le Mesnil-Sur-Oger, arguably the source of the greatest Chardonnay grapes in Champagne, comes the wines of this stunning producer. This one, made from grand cru fruit (mostly from Oger, but including some from Avize, Cramant, and Chouilly), is thrilling—grassy with lemon and orange zest on the nose, it is wonderfully precise on the palate with distinct citrus and mineral flavors and a long, long finish. Retails for $32.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.