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War over planting rights erupts in Champagne

Published:  16 January, 2018

A war over planting rights is being waged in France, where Champagne growers want to severely limit new plantings of vines by rival growers in areas surrounding Champagne’s production zone.

Wine growers are aiming to secure planting rights for hundreds of hectares for the production of still wine as part of the restoration of Ile-de-France, which historically until the 19 century, was one of France’s leading wine regions.

The move to establish a new Ile de France production area, mainly in Seine-et-Marne and Aisne, comes however, amidst the most important transformation of Champagne’s production area since 1927.

Patrice Bersac, Chairman of Syvif - the Ile-de France Growers’ union, said the powerful Champagne Growers’ Union, Syndicat Général des Vignerons de Champagne (SVG), wants to establish a 25 kilometre wide ‘cordon sanitaire’ along the perimeter of Champagne’s production area in which the planting of vines would be prohibited.

It is part of the general revision of Champagne production area, which could see the authorisation for the expansion of Champagne in up to 40 villages around the existing production area by the end of this year which would come into force by 2021.

It would also lead to the removal of areas surrounding the municipality of Soissons from the Champagne production area.

In a move to resolve the conflict, the Syvif has made a proposal to France ministry of Agriculture for the creation of a buffer zone between Champagne’s production area and neighbouring municipalities in which wine production would be limited to still wine production.

The SVG stands accused by rival growers of acting ‘illegally’ against the EU’s deregulation of vine plantings, which came into force in 2016.

“Champagne producers are happy investing and growing vines elsewhere, like Kent in the UK, but do not want other producers growing vines on their doorstep. This is contradictory, irrational behaviour,” said Bersac.

“Rather than making a war with their neighbours, Champagne growers should be focusing on the economic competition from Prosecco, Cava and English wine,” he told Harpers.

The conflict between growers has surged after the Syvif union of growers obtained planting rights for 30 ha of vines in 2016.

The EU’s liberalisation of planting rights allows EU member states to increase plantings of vines by 1% each year, but Bersac said moves from growers to plant vines would not have a substantial impact on the bid from Champagne growers to enlarge their existing production area.

“We pose no threat to Champagne. Our project is miniscule compared to the size of the production area of Champagne – this is a case of David versus Goliath,” said Bersac.

On December 20, 2017, four civil servants of a wine council within France’s Ministry of Agriculture voted against a move to accept a demand from the SVG to severely limit plantings of new vines from rival growers to 0.10 hectares this year.

“The conflict is far from over – this vote shows divisions within the ministry,” a grower told Harpers.

The SVG has so far declined to issue a comment to Harpers on the issue, but according to a source close to the government, the agriculture ministry has called for dialogue between the parties in order to reach a negotiated settlement to the dispute.