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The Trouble With Champagne


When you buy a bottle of Champagne, you have every right to expect that it was produced by the company whose name is on the label and in a style consistent with wines the company has made in the past.

But as the Gershwin song goes, it ain't necessarily so. A portion of the wine sold by some Champagne producers is made not by them but by cooperatives that sell wine already in bottle to buyers who then slap their own label on it. Moreover, the quality of all Champagne has declined significantly over the last two decades as production has risen sharply.

Yet prices are higher than ever, with even modest non-vintage Champagne selling for $25 and more.

Christian Bizot of the house of J. Bollinger has had enough. One of the few Champagne producers willing to publicly acknowledge the obvious, he says, "Champagne is not as good as it used to be, and I don't want Bollinger to suffer from this situation."

Bizot rocked the Champagne community last October at a Paris news conference at which he decried the current state of Champagne and proposed a set of guidelines that he said would make for better and more consistent Champagne.

Included was a recommendation that major producers, the so-called Grande Marque houses, commit themselves to what he called the "total paternity" of their wines, meaning they alone would be responsible for making their wines. He also suggested that the major houses use a higher percentage of top-quality grapes, that they press them more gently and cellar the wines longer for greater maturity.

Bizot's comments were met by an icy silence from his fellow producers. But if anything, his challenge to Champagne seems overdue.

The numbers indicate that something is amiss. In the last 30 years or so, Champagne production has risen 240% while acreage has jumped only 50%. During the 1960s, the average annual production for all of Champagne was 7.5 million cases; it rose to 11.6 million cases in the 1970s, and to 18.6 million cases during the 1980s. In 1990 alone, more than 24 million cases of Champagne were produced.

A New York-based industry analyst who has watched Champagne for the last decade explains the discrepancy: "They're harvesting grapes from lesser areas and squeezing more out of them. You've tasted that stuff. Is it worth $30 a bottle?"

This decline of high-quality Champagne from even well-regarded producers is something Bizot says he could no longer ignore, even though he was pained by the idea of speaking out. What irritates him most is sur lattes --the purchasing of already bottled cooperative-produced wine to which some prestigious houses affix their own labels.

Once an underground secret, sur lattes was rarely discussed or written about until 1986. Then Tom Stevenson, in his book "Champagne," decried the practice in harsh terms, referring to it as a scandal.

Sur lattes sales typically increase when grape prices are stable and moderate, and demand for Champagne is high. A producer simply buys the amount of wine he needs for a particular client without having to wait two years from the harvest to get the wine.

Jean-Louis Carbonniere of the Champagne News Information Bureau in New York insists sur lattes isn't a large factor, accounting for no more than 4% of all Champagne sales. Still, with some 24 million cases of Champagne produced in 1990, this accounts for nearly 1 million cases that could surface under labels indicating that a well-known house "produced" it.

Carbonniere says that when grapes increase in price, as they have recently, the incentive to buy sur lattes declines, because the price of sur lattes rises with the grape prices and isn't as profitable.

Bizot, who took over as director of Bollinger after the death of the legendary Lily Bollinger, his aunt, swears he has never used sur lattes wine.

"We are privileged because we don't make so much wine (fewer than 100,000 cases)," he says, "and we grow 75% of our own grapes, so we are never short of wine."

In Bizot's charter, he proposes that all Grand Marque houses form a Club des Grandes Marques to set down rigid production rules so Champagne will once again be made by quality standards. This was attempted once before, in 1964, when the Syndicat des Grandes Marques de Champagne was established by the top 25 Champagne houses, presumably to protect or enhance the reputation of all Champagne. But no formal rules were ever established.

Within weeks of Bizot's October remarks, an informal rule reducing the permissible tonnage for Grande Marque Champagne was instituted for the harvest of 1992. (Still, as one analyst points out, "It was easy to make such a regulation last year because it was to reduce yields, and 1992 was a very large harvest and there is already an oversupply of Champagne. So reducing the yield didn't affect them much.")

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