There are three undeniable truths about champagne. 1. When you drink it, you taste Frenchness. 2. When you see a bottle with the word “champagne” on it, you know it comes from a wine maker from the Champagne region inside the delimited area in France. 3. And whatever happens in the world, champagne never loses its value, even when climates change and markets collapse. Coincidence? Good fortune? Think again. Behind the 16.000 winemakers, 340 champagne houses and 140 cooperatives, there’s a strong force that ties all the individuals together. In Épernay, I had the chance to talk to their director of communications, Thibaut Le Mailloux. In this article I give you: Le Comité Interprofessionel du Vin de Champagne.
Le CIVC versus Le Comité Champagne
In the Champagne region, le Comité Interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne (CIVC) is an established organisation. They’re housed in an impressive building at 5 Rue Henri Martin in Épernay, equipped with modern tasting rooms, wide stairs and fine paintings. Me and Peter (the photographer of the day!) are welcomed by a receptionist and as we look around, we’re both impressed by the allure. In foreign countries, however, there’s great confusion about what CIVC is and what they do. The fact that they’re also known as “Comité Champagne” doesn’t make it any easier. “Abroad, we rather use a simpler name,” explains Thibaut le Mailloux. He’s just given us a sneak peek in the tasting room and leads us to a conference room with a ceiling-high painting of champagne makers in the olden days. “Comité Champagne simply sounds better than CIVC, and it draws a picture of what we do.”
“…So, what is it that you do?”
It’s a simple question with a long answer. “Le CIVC is a semi-public organisation,” says Thibaut. “We don’t buy champagne and we don’t sell it; we’re here to manage and protect the champagnes wines and to represent the interests of the grape growers, champagne makers and champagne houses. We report to both the Ministry of Economic Affairs and the Ministry of Agriculture, where we represent the champagne sector as a whole. It makes us unique, as there’s no other organisation that does that.”
“The most important thing we protect, is the word champagne,” Thibaut continues, “as it’s not just a colour and more than a sparkling wine.” I nod eagerly. It’s the first commandment of the region: Champagne comes from Champagne, period. However, Thibaut tells us that there’ve been many wine makers from outside the Champagne region that tried to add the C-word to their labels, which severely damages the reputation of actual champagne. After all, if anyone can claim the name, quality and exclusiveness disappear, and the reputation of the region with it.
“Champagne is classical, but not old-fashioned”
Drinking less- living more
Speaking of reputation- how do you protect and promote an entire region with so many different flavours and styles? “There are many different sorts of champagnes, but they also have many things in common.” says Thibaut. “Champagne is classical, but it’s not old-fashioned. It’s instantly festive, because of its flavour, the sparkles and the emotions it provokes. It’s not without reason that we drink it at the most important moments in life.”
I tell him about the Dutch attitude towards champagne, as in the Netherlands, most people believe that mediocre champagne is for New Year’s Eve and great champagne is for the rich and old. “In France, we look at champagne completely different!” says Thibaut. “Here, everyone can enjoy a great champagne. It doesn’t matter where you live, what you do and how old you are.” In fact, high quality champagne is gaining popularity among the great public, he says. “We see a decrease in the number of bottles sold, but an increase in the price per bottle.” Clearly, people drink less, but live more.
Are you the champagne police?
On their website, I read that le CIVC is not just a promoter of champagne, but also regulates the production process itself. For example, they determine harvest days per village and grape variety, and dictate how many litres of champagne the makers are allowed to produce per year. Moreover, they built an environmental programme for all of the area, engaging the producers in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, protecting water quality and improving biodiversity. It had made me curious: how would champagne makers feel about this institution that “makes the rules”?
Fortunately, I had just spoken to Justin Hervé of Leclerc Briant, who had given a masterclass in Sacré Bistro the night before. To my surprise, Justin Hervé had been very positive, telling me the CIVC was a great support to him and the Leclerc Briant brand. “We get that a lot,” says Thibaut, when I tell him about my surprise. “Many people think we’re the champagne police, but we actually represent growers and producers.” He shows me an organigram of the organisation, and tells me that all stakeholders are represented. He points: “Both the president of the winemakers and the president of the champagne houses are in the board. And we don’t vote! Everyone has a voice and there’s no compromising.”
Protecting a flavour
There’s another reason why growers and winemakers are able to collaborate this peacefully. “If the champagne name is strong, we all benefit,” explains Thibaut. “That’s why we work hard to create a distinctive wine with a distinctive flavour that sets this region apart from others.” It’s why the CIVC sets the dates for the harvest, as sunlight and maturation have an enormous impact on flavour and tone. “As long as all growers stick to the same harvest period, we create a common denominator that ties all champagnes together,” says Thibaut. “For the same reason, we closely monitor the production process.”
Of course, I couldn’t help but ask him about Abyss by Leclerc Briant, who puts bottles to sleep in the ocean. “They’re allowed!” Thibault says. “I know a lot of champagne producers that do experiments, we do that too. As long as they stay within the boundaries of what is defined as champagne, it’s alright. Thibaut also notes that the CIVC doesn’t depend the yearly output on harvest size. “Instead, we study the market.” he explains. “Since we manage output based on demand instead of supply, we avoid an excess of champagne that makes the prices go down.” So that’s why! Champagne is kept scarce so that it can hold on to its exclusiveness. “Exactly,” says Thibaut. “Moreover, the litres that we don’t sell this year, might just save next year’s batch in case of a shortage.
“Every grower, wine maker and Champagne house is allowed to follow their own path. The CIVC, in turn, makes sure all of these paths contribute to the three main objectives”
The future of the most classical drink in the world
Still, there’s more to the CIVC. They’re dedicated to giving the champagne a leading role in lowering the environmental impact of the wine industry. They made a great start back in 2002, when the champagne was the first wine region ever to assess its carbon footprint. And with success: over the last 15 years, the collective of growers, producers and champagne houses reduced its carbon footprint with 20% per bottle. Today, an impressive 90% of all waste is recovered, and 20% of the wine area is environmentally certified. Those are great numbers, and they underline the innovative and avant garde character that’s so typical of this classical (but not old-fashioned!) wine sector.
“There’s still a lot to be done, though,” Thibaut admits, “we’re trying to get as many companies certified. We don’t dictate which certificates, as there are many different types. Every grower, wine maker and champagne house is allowed to follow their own path. The CIVC, in turn, makes sure all of these paths contribute to our three main objectives, which are: increasing biodiversity, lowering the carbon footprint and improving water quality.”
What makes good champagne?
Thibaut’s eyes light up when he hears this last question. “It’s the one that drinks the champagne who decides,” he says. “People blame me for being politically correct, but it’s true! It also depends on the moment, the people you’re with, the food you eat, the mood you’re in: it’s all important. Taste also depends on your day. For example, today, I may find myself wanting a blanc des blancs, but tomorrow, it could all be different. That’s what I love about champagne, there are so many different kinds, which makes it incredibly interesting.”
Is that why you chose this job? I want to know. “Well, I surely didn’t come here because of the weather,” Thibaut laughs. “It was the champagne that brought me here. It’s so intertwined with the French culture and history and it has something magical. And because of the many different growers, producers and production methods, the world of champagne is very complex. I love how they’re all taking a different road to the same end-goal, which is creating an innovative sector that produces an experience that the whole world wants to sip from.”