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France to expand Champagne region

13 March 08 15:54 GMT

France is planning to expand the area in which wine growers are allowed to make champagne, in a bid to cope with growing demand for the luxury drink.

Only bottles that are produced in a designated area of the Champagne region can be labelled as champagne.

But the body which decides on the wine-growing boundaries is set to expand the area, with the inclusion of up to 40 more villages.

It will be the first expansion of the region since 1927.

French exports of champagne hit a record of 150.9 million bottles last year, according to industry body Comite Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne.

Russian demand grew by 41% in 2007, and Chinese consumption of champagne has grown nine-fold in just five years.

Jealously guarded

The coveted Appellation d'Origine Controlee (AOC) label for Champagne covers vineyards in 319 villages spread out across 33,500 hectares (83,000 acres) in north-eastern France.

Wine experts from the Institut national de l'origine et de la qualite (INAO), which regulates the AOC label, have been mulling over a list of potential additional villages since March 2006.

A meeting in Paris on Thursday was set to decide which villages should get the go-ahead.

The final decision will need to be approved by the state council, France's highest administrative body, which is not expected to issue a decree until 2009.

The INAO will then study potential plots before award planting rights, with consumers not expected to taste the new AOC wines for some 10 years.

But falling inside the label's jealously guarded borders could change the fortunes of many growers.

"If your vines fall on the wrong side of the divide, they will be worth 5,000 euros ($7,800; £3,800) a hectare," said Gilles Flutet of the INAO.

"On the other side they will be worth 1m euros," he told the AFP news agency.

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