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Bubbly burst

Nearly a decade ago, the centuries-old Champagne houses of France, beset by sluggish sales, decided their business needed more of the hustle and flash of modern marketing. Slick promotional campaigns were created to lift sales. Worldwide sales, which climbed to a record 250-million bottles last year, are up 75 percent since 1982, and Champagne exports have doubled.

Today, with demand far exceeding supply, the genteel Champagne makers are responding with higher prices and hauteur _ and are planning to raise prices sharply over the next few months.

People who now pay $24 a bottle for such premium brands as Moet & Chandon, Taittinger or Bollinger may soon have to spend $30 or more, and the top-of-the-line bottles, such as Dom Perignon and Louis Roederer Cristal, are expected to go up from $80 to around $100 a bottle by the end of the year.

To be sure, the houses agreed this year to pay at least 20 percent more for grapes after a near-rebellion among growers, who thought they were receiving too low a price for their grapes.

Many people wonder why Champagne houses do not increase production to meet the booming demand. The reason is that the French government has limited the area where grapes for Champagne can be grown, and it is in no rush to increase the 86,500 designated acres in Epernay and Rheims, 90 miles outside Paris.

(In an international agreement signed by many countries but not the United States, only wines from that region may be called Champagne; Spain, for instance, refers to its sparkling wines as cavas.)

What is more, U.S. plans to increase taxes on spirits will make Champagne even more expensive. Champagne prices are expected to rise by 15 percent in French francs, but as the dollar falls to its lowest levels ever against European currencies, U.S. prices could rise much more.

"Americans became spoiled because they got used to buying champagne at $12 and $15 a bottle when the dollar was unusually strong a few years ago," said Bizot of Bollinger. "That was an unnaturally low price."

By contrast, however, sales in the United States have declined in the last two years, reflecting growing anti-alcohol sentiments and the weaker dollar. Higher prices will likely cut U.S. sales further.

Some predict many buyers will defect to less expensive sparkling wines from California, Spain, Australia and Brazil.

Information from Cox News Service was used in this story.