RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And the best climate for champagne is in Champagne, that region in northeastern France that's the only place where champagne is produced. Everything else is just sparking wine. So to meet exploding world demand for real bubbly, the French are expanding the area where champagne can be produced.
Eleanor Beardsley reports.
(Soundbite of birds chirping)
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Alongside the patchwork vineyards that cover the rolling hillsides of Champagne, stone markers bear the names of the great French Champagne houses - Moet & Chandon, Taittinger, Pommery. The markers lay claim to the pinot noir, pinot meuniere and chardonnay grapes that will burst forth this fall from these sunny hillsides with their characteristic chalky soil.
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A recording of Gregorian monks echoes through the abbey in the hilltop village of Hautvilliers. Here lies the tomb of Dom Petrus Perignon, the monk who accidentally discovered champagne more than 300 years ago when a batch of wine overfermented. Despite his faux pas, says abbey caretaker 80-year-old Roger Jeanveau, Dom Perignon was a meticulous vintner.
Mr. ROGER JEANVEAU (Abbey caretaker): (Through translator) Oh, he had a whole philosophy about making wine. For instance, the horses had to be well fed so they wouldn't shake the grape carts. And the grapes had to be harvested with the early morning dew. Oh, yes, yes.
(Soundbite of cork popping and champagne being poured)
BEARDSLEY: Christophe Mignon opens and shares one of the finest bottles in his cellar. Most champagne comes from small producers like the Mignon family, who have been making it for five generations. On the walls of Mignon's cellar hang photos of his great-grandparents working the vineyards.
Later, standing mid-slope amidst rows of vines on a sun-drenched hillside, Mignon describes what makes champagne special.
Mr. CHRISTOPHE MIGNON (Champagne producer): (Through translator) For me the real quality of champagne is in the vines. Each vine absorbs the different tastes, odors and influences from the soil and transmits it to the grapes and wine. And the taste is slightly different depending where on the slopes the vines are planted.
BEARDSLEY: Last year, the region sold 340 million bottles of champagne worldwide - about half that was consumed in France. Britain and the U.S. imported record quantities and new markets are heating up in China, Japan and the Middle East. As demand increases, a century-old law that restricts production to 370 villages in the Champagne region is no longer sufficient, says Eric Champion, director of the French Champagne Control Board.
Mr. ERIC CHAMPION (Director, French Champagne Control Board): (Through translator) We've named 40 new communities that meet the specific quality criteria and they will be able to produce champagne. You can't grow champagne grapes like you can grow wheat or beets. Champagne is produced when the know-how passed down through generations interacts with a specific physical environment.
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BEARDSLEY: Michel Guillou is mayor of Loivre, one of the villages on the new champagne list. Loivre, population 1,100, was completely destroyed during World War I. While its church and houses were rebuilt in the 1920s, the village has never quite recovered. Guillou says being added to the list would be a new beginning for the town.
Mr. MICHEL GUILLOU (Mayor, Loivre): (Through translator) This could have a big economic impact on the village and would really change our image, because we would be producing the best wine in the world. And I permit myself to say this to the American radio.
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BEARDSLEY: A committee of experts still have to do a technical assessment of such factors as the soil, bedrock, altitude and exposure of the land to determine which areas are best suited to produce quality champagne.
Loivre farmer Phillippe Bashay(ph) looks out on his sugar beet and barley fields, which would skyrocket in value if he is authorized to plant champagne grapes here.
Mr. PHILLIPPE BASHAY (Farmer, Loivre): (Through translator) Yes, it would be a dream come true if we could plant vines here. But let's be realistic. It would be a lot of hard work, because making champagne means following strict rules. But still it does change your vision to think that one day there will be vineyards in Loivre.
BEARDSLEY: But Bashay says he isn't getting too excited yet. The experts are not expected to make their recommendations for several more years.
For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Champagne, France.