At the beginning of the 20th Century, the Champagne vineyard lay in tatters, devastated by the phylloxera epidemic then the First World War. As winegrowers set to work replanting, there was a growing awareness of the need to protect their collective heritage. In the years that followed, a law was passed marking the boundaries of the Champagne terroir and defining rules and regulations. With the granting of AOC status in 1936, Champagne finally won its centuries-old battle for official recognition.
By the end of the 19th Century, phylloxera had wiped out all of Champagne’s extensive plantings. Faced with imminent catastrophe, Winegrowers and Champagne Houses (which owned vines of their own) joined forces and in 1898 formed the Association Viticole Champenoise (AVC: Wine-growing Association of Champagne).
The AVC had four main goals:
Having realized that all diseased vines would have to be replaced with grafted vines, the AVC took the opportunity to make improvements. Random planting was replaced by trained vines, effectively reducing planting density from 40,000 vines per hectare to just to 8,000. A new pruning method was introduced, along with new ways of trellising, pinching-back, etc.
By 1919, the once 60,000-strong hectare vineyard had been reduced to a handful of selected sites covering just 12,000 hectares.
Following the lawsuits won by the Champagne Houses in the 19th century, the name Champagne was exclusively reserved for wines harvested and produced in Champagne. But the precise limits of the area in question remained to be defined. Meanwhile, in the absence of regulation, new and unscrupulous producers began sourcing wines from other areas.
Faced with mounting fraud, the Federation of Champagne Unions (Fédération de syndicats, formed in 1904) called for the demarcation of the Champagne vineyard.
On 22 July 1927 a law was passed defining the zone of Champagne production.
The judicial decision rested on traditional land usage: areas eligible for appellation were to be under vine at the time of legislation or prior to the phylloxera epidemic.
An interdepartmental commission was appointed to consider lists of eligible plots (vineyard sites) submitted by villages.
By establishing a delimited zone based on consensus, the approach had its merits, whatever shortcomings may have arisen in the years that followed.
The law of 1927 also established the first Champagne quality rules. The only authorised vine stocks were those traditionally grown in Champagne: Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay, plus two historic vine stocks, Arbanne and Petit Meslier.
But the real battle for quality came a few years later in the period 1931-1935 following massive over-production and a slump in sales that sent the price of grapes tumbling. In response to demand from growers, a special decree was passed on 30 September 1935 specifying further quality measures relating to:
The Châlons Commission was set up to monitor enforcement.
With vineyards in crisis throughout France, French wine-growing associations called on the Government to support their drive to regulate and develop certain appellations, monitor production and prosecute cases of fraud.
Their demands gave rise to the principles of Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (Appellation of Controlled Origin or AOC) and the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine (INAO), which was formed on 30 July 1935. The INAO has since been renamed the ‘Institut National de l’Origine et de la Qualité’ but retains its original acronym.
The Comité Champagne
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