Dozens more French villages will be able to cash in on a boom in bubbly after regulators voted Thursday to extend the official borders of the Champagne growing area.
Like other French wines, champagne-labelled bottles are produced only from grapes nurtured in a specially designated region -- in this case 319 villages spread across 33,500 hectares (83,000 acres) in northeast France.
The INAO institute, which decides the boundaries of the geographic area entitled to produce under the coveted Appellation d'Origine Controlee (AOC) label, met in Paris on Thursday to decide on the historic expansion.
"The area of the appellation, which included 319 communes (districts) covering 33,500 hectares (83,000 acres), will now include 357 communes," said Yves Benard of the institute. The vote was unanimous.
The list of the new districts will be made public in about two weeks, he said.
Wine experts from the INAO have since March 2006 been working on a list of villages that could join the AOC champagne-producing area based on a series of criteria, in particular soil quality.
"If your vines fall on the wrong side of the divide, they will be worth 5,000 euros a hectare," said Gilles Flutet, who is in charge of demarcation at INAO. "On the other side they will be worth a million euros."
The decision will require the endorsement of the state council, France's highest administrative body, which is expected to issue a decree in 2009.
That ruling will then set off a lengthy process of new INAO studies to delimit plots and award planting rights, with consumers not expected to taste the new AOC champagne wines before some 10 years.
Worldwide exports of champagne hit an all-time record in 2007, spurred by booming demand in Asia and Russia, where newly-affluent consumers are cracking open the bubbly.
Champagne producers exported 150 million bottles last year, a 7.3-percent jump from 2006, in addition to 188 million guzzled at home, according to the Interprofessional Champagne Wine Committee (CIVC), an industry group.
Outside France, Britain was the biggest champagne drinker while sales in Russia jumped 41 percent. Exports to China soared 30 percent, a nine-fold increase in five years.
Asia now accounts for nine percent of all champagne exports, but the drink's core market remains the European Union.
Whereas the broader French wine industry has suffered in recent years from overproduction, champagne is produced in limited quantities.
The 33,500 hectares of vineyard dedicated to champagne production, all in the Reims region, pale in comparison to the 120,000 hectares cultivated for Bordeaux.
The president of the SGV Champagne producers trade group, Patrick Le Brun, said the decision will put an end to attempts by separate vineyards to force their way into AOC territory through the courts.
"In the medium term, the court cases risked tarnishing the credibility of the AOC label and the specificity of our product," said Le Brun.
In 1995, the town of Fontenay-sur-Ay set a precedent when it won the right to plant 30 hectares of grapes for champagne production after 13 years of legal battles.
"It's really a matter of ensuring that champagne production can face the challenge of growth by preserving its specificity," said Daniel Lorson, from the CIVC.