I’m delighted to be able to share the news: after much lobbying and help from many of you, UNESCO has just granted World Heritage Status to the “coteaux, maisons et caves de Champagne“. I’m very excited, as participating in this bid was one small part of my grand project in moving to France over 3 years ago. Yet like many of the French, I’m not one to take good news lying down, so let’s look more closely at what this means, the reactions and the potential future possibilities for this region I am blessed to currently call home.
Coteaux literally means “hillsides” but in this instance is taken to mean “vineyards.” Yes, you may find some still red wine called coteaux champenoise which is made from Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier grown in Champagne, but this is not what UNESCO is celebrating, tasty though it may be. (On a side note, I know one champagne producer who is now making a still white coteaux champenoise, practically unheard of!)
Maisons means “houses” and is usually used to mean the famous names sold in nearly every wine shop or market around the globe. The small producers, although they might sometimes be referred to as petites maisons de champagne, are more commonly called producteurs. In addition, you have all the grape growers who sell their harvest to the big houses, which has been going on for well over 100 years. There are more than 3,500 of these growers making their own champagne, although most of them don’t export what they make. This is where the term “grower champagne” comes from. Does this mean that UNESCO is snubbing champagne producers who are not the big houses? Well, that depends on how particular you want to get. More on this below.
Caves refers to the cellars where the champagne is aged (minimum 15 months in the bottle for non-vintage and at least 3 years for vintage champagne, remember?). There are many miles of caves carved out of the chalky soil under Epernay, parts of which are open for tours. There are also beautiful caves in other parts of Champagne, including this rustic vaulted cellar from the 17th century, made using bricks in the Burgundian style, and this impressive one, from Reims.
In fact, the award listed only a few specific, small areas in the Champagne region. These are: the hillside Saint-Nicaise near Reims, the hills around Epernay and in particular those of the commune of Hautvillers (where Dom Perignon is buried), and the Avenue de Champagne in Epernay. According to UNESCO, these three reflect “the totality of the process of the production of champagne.” Hmmm. So they listed only two small vineyard areas out of the 34,000 hectares of production in Champagne.
Look at this map, which shows the different areas within the champagne region: Montagne de Reims, Vallée de la Marne, Côte des Blancs, Côte de Sezanne, Côte des Bar, and the two other well-known champagne-producing towns of Montgueux and Les Riceys (the latter is actually 3 towns joined together, but let’s not quibble).
They also listed only one place, the Avenue de Champagne in Epernay, for both the caves and the houses. Why? Well, for those of you who follow my blog because we met when you visited Epernay in 2012, you may have toured part of the approximately 200km of caves under Epernay, carved out of the chalk 20-40 meters underground, where millions of bottles await their turn to delight the world’s champagne lovers.
“Disneyland for adults” is how I describe the avenue. The street is lined with the grand mansions of many famous names: Moët et Chandon, Pol Roger, Mercier, and Perrier-Jouët, among others. This one should look familiar to many of you:
I worked in this lovely mansion from Summer through Fall 2012, poured champagne out in the courtyard and in the salon, discussed the history of the region and answered your questions about the champagne-making process, and helped distribute ballots for the Champagne bid to UNESCO to visitors from around the world. I collected your signed ballots and returned them to the CIVC, where a devoted group of people were lobbying tirelessly for the status granted this past weekend. So a big THANK YOU to all of you who signed the ballots! You never know, yours may have been the one that made the difference!
So what has the reaction been from the locals? Most are quite happy that Champagne has been officially recognized, and hope that it will lead to even more tourism and possible funding for maintenance and promotion projects. Some are frustrated that other important champagne-producing areas weren’t mentioned, such as Les Riceys. However, it seems that much of the press I’ve seen in English focuses on the region of Champagne as a whole, rather than the specific sites. As most visitors to France don’t read the French press, the UNESCO World Heritage status will likely attract international tourists to Champagne, to visit, taste, learn, and walk away with a greater appreciation for the delightful beverage we call champagne!