Champagne Production Squeeze

A bubbly boom in popularity may leave some scrambling for the French wine.


Sept. 18, 2007 — -- The pop of a champagne cork is the universal sound of celebration, but imagine the next wedding, new baby or New Year's Eve celebration without the world's most-famous bubbly.

We went to France's Champagne region for this year's annual harvest and found champagne producers struggling to meet soaring demand.

"Only some special places, some plots, have been classified to be good enough to produce the kind of grapes we need to elaborate the quality of champagne," said Bertrand Steip of Moet & Chandon, "and we are close to the limits in terms of planting and production so that means that in the years to come the amounts of champagne produced every year is going to reach the limits and is going to be limited."

The world is drinking more champagne than ever, especially the nouveaux riches in Russia, India and China, like the buyers from Beijing we met touring champagne's famous caves.

"Champagne is very delicious and romantic for me," said Sally Sung.

Booming demand means record sales. Total sales hit 330 million bottles this year, up from 280 million in 2002. That all sounds like good news. The trouble is, France's champagne vineyards can no longer grow, age and bottle enough bubbly to go around.

The champagne region is limited by French law to fewer then 150 square miles. And nothing, not even a shortage, will allow growers to expand the size or the output of their vineyards, or to abandon age-old but inefficient methods, such as handpicking every bunch of grapes.

Some producers are making things even worse by hoarding bottles — an estimated 100 million bottles — hoping their stash will be worth enough to retire on some day.

We met Pierre Cheval-Gatinois, whose family has been making champagne for 11 generations. He gave us a tour of his hidden treasures and when pointing to one fine bottle he is keeping said, "No, it's not for sale. It could be pity to sell such a bottle."

Now, for the first time, champagne exporters, such as Moet & Chandon (makers of the famous Dom Perignon brand) are left to pick and choose who can buy their bubbly.

"It's hard, but we're going to have to make some choices," Steip said. "Today, as we reach the limits, you know, the makers would love to get more grapes in order to feed the demands, but it's always a balance we have to find and that balance, that kind of tension is one of the reasons why the success of champagne, so we have to preserve that."

The most likely losers? Old markets, such as Europe, where growth is flat, leaving more bottles for new markets in India, Russia and China, where sales are booming.

Of course, there's always sparkling wine from California or Italy, but the real drink of kings may soon be further out of our reach.

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