UMC - Grandes Marques et Maisons de Champagne

The grand history of the Champagne Houses


Membres du Conseil de l'Union des Maisons de champagne, juillet 2019. France’s “30 glorious” post-war years marked the establishment of the EU single market guaranteeing the free movement of goods – boomtime for the Champagne Houses, spoiled only by a shortage of grapes following the arrival of growers (Vignerons récoltants-manipulants) and Champagne cooperatives that made and marketed “own” label Champagne. The Champagne Houses had been seeing their own grape supplies dwindle ever since, not helped by the planting limits imposed by the Syndicat des Vignerons (SGV) to prevent grape prices from plummeting as in the past – that and the need to maintain Champagne’s position as a luxury brand unconcerned about competition with vin mousseux.

It was in this difficult context that in 1959 the Union des Syndicats du Commerce des Vins de Champagne agreed to a contrat interprofessionnel: a cross-industry contract set up by the SGV for a period of eight years. By signing, Growers committed to sell the Houses some or all of their crop at a price to be calculated on the basis of the price of a bottle of Champagne. They were also guaranteed to sell their crop whatever the circumstances. The Houses meanwhile benefitted from secure deliveries by Growers less vulnerable to manipulation and more inclined to accept new vineyard plantings now they there were certain of selling their grapes at a decent price over several years. The period 1945-2019 would see a threefold increase in the total area under vine, and a tenfold increase in Champagne sales (from 30 to 300 million bottles).

However, the contrat interprofessionnel also had some perverse effects. For instance, it removed the incentive for Growers to improve berry quality. Why bother to improve crop performance when their yield was effectively pre-sold? It also apportioned the crop according to a system unchanged since 1945, which encouraged the buying of bouteilles sur lattes (“champagnized” wines) as a way for the Houses to increase their supply of grapes. In 1990 it was therefore decided to scrap the contract altogether, partly because of the inherent unfairness of the grape supply system but also to rekindle Growers’ commitment to quality.

Meanwhile Champagne makers were in the throes of an identity crisis after some of their methods were discredited by English journalists. At one point the Syndicat du Commerce (now renamed the Syndicat de Grandes Marques) even considered a return to its former image as a select club for Champagne Houses with impeccable credentials – merchants who met stringent inclusion criteria that would serve as consumer guarantees.

In the end it was the Champagne collective spirit that prevailed. Far from remaining separate, the former unions representing small and big brands respectively (known in French as la petite et la grande bouteille) merged to form the Union des Maisons de Champagne (UMC): a single union where high performers would get others to follow in their wake.

In 1992 Champagne did not escape the recessionary chill triggered by the Gulf War. For the UMC and SGV however, the drop in production presented an opportunity to reduce press yields – ever a strong indicator of quality. They also created the “Champagne wine reserve”: a powerful tool for industry regulation and crop protection where reserve stocks are set aside for release in the event of a future harvest shortfall.

The new millennium then saw the UMC and SGV, within the framework of the Comité Champagne, make a firm commitment to sustainable development. Champagne was the first wine region in the world to calculate its carbon footprint, followed up by the introduction of the “Sustainable Viticulture in Champagne” certification – a measure of performance even more ambitious than France’s “High Environmental Value” certification.

The story of Champagne is the story of Winegrowers and Champagne Houses driven by an unending quest for excellence. Together they make up an industry trade group unlike any other in the world, enriching the cultural heritage of a region now recognized for its outstanding universal value. In 2015, as a reward for their commitment, Champagne’s Hillsides, Houses and Cellars were added to the UNESCO World Heritage List.