People already know le champagne wine, the celebratory fizz favored around the world, now they will get to know ‘la’ Champagne region, where it is made. Amid hugs, cheers, and happy tears, in July UNESCO awarded the prestigious World Heritage distinction to the outstanding universal value of the Coteaux, Maisons et Caves de Champagne (hillsides, houses and cellars).
Not all that sparkles is champagne. By law the appellation can only be used for wine produced in the 320 districts in the Champagne area. Located approximately 90 minutes northeast of Paris, with the main hubs in Reims and Epernay, its austere weather conditions, chalky sub-soil, and limited harvest window create a one-of-a-kind terroir. Paradoxically, when the vine struggles to produce fruit, it imprints it with a unique complexity only found here.
The official UNESCO World Heritage designation encompasses “sites where the method of producing sparkling wines was developed, from the principle of secondary fermentation in the bottle in the early 17th century, to its early industrialization in the 19th century.” The honor includes the three components that illustrate the entire champagne process; the supply basin formed by the historic hillsides, the production sites with their underground cellars, and the sales and distribution centers (the Champagne Houses).
The prestigious accolade bears testimony to the development of a very specialized artisanal activity that has become a mammoth agro-industrial endeavor. It also serves to showcase the work of medium and small producers, inevitably overshadowed behind the glitzy names, and to remind each of the stakeholders of the value of the site and the importance of managing it sustainably to conserve it for future generations.
Frank Leroy, Mayor of Epernay, reacting to the announcement said, “It’s a fantastic moment of joy and success for the Champagne. When we heard the announcement we heard a ‘yes!’ among the audience, an interior happiness that exploded outwards, the result of 9 years of really intricate work with a phenomenal amount of research and study, and today we reap the reward for our efforts. Vive la Champagne!”
The whole town of Epernay came together in an epic soirée blanche, a picnic on the avenue de Champagne, with music, dancing and fireworks. The dress code? White from head to toe. Pascal Férat, President of the Champagne Winegrowers Syndicate said, “It’s a day of joy and happiness, above all because the winegrowers, the people that work the land day in and day out, and the small producers, are all here to celebrate together.”
The famous Champagne Avenue draws half a million visitors each year. It’s thought to be the most expensive street in the world because of the names headquartered here –Moët & Chandon, Mercier, De Castellane, Perrier-Jouët, Pol Roger – and for the 200 million bottles stored out of sight in the 100 kilometers web of cellars underfoot. UNESCO classed the avenue as a ‘living and evolving cultural landscape’.