Wine makers in France have begun their annual grape harvest. Storms in the south of the country have damaged some vineyards adding mounting problems to years of declining domestic consumption, shrinking export markets and over-production. VOA's Chris Simkins reports from the heart of France's champagne growing region where wine makers are hoping to boost sales of their products around the world in 2006.

These are the world-renowned vineyards of France's champagne growing region outside the city of Reims.

At the famous Veuve Clicquot Champagne house they are serving up the bubbly, hoping international tourists will like what they taste and buy the champagne back home.  Like many other producers, Veuve Clicquot is pushing harder to market its champagne to international customers. That's because the French are drinking less wine these days and there's increased overseas competition from countries such as the United States, Italy, Chile, Australia and South Africa.

In the winding cellar tunnels of the Veuve Clicquot house, Flo Tabart gives guided tours to visitors explaining the finer points and methods for making champagne, from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes.

"If you add less sugar you will have brut, champagne brut," she tells a group.

Wine makers believe by educating consumers they will sell more product. Although all champagne makers follow the same methods, each producer has its own secret practices for making and blending the wine.

Ms. Tabart says the techniques used by the company's founder, Madame Clicquot, back in the 18th century, separates the taste of its champagne from others including sparkling wine producers.

"I think the champagne of the Veuve Clicquot is so special because of the quality of the champagne and the history of the house. It is a very traditional house of champagne and Madame Clicquot was a very charismatic person -- she was a very important person, a business woman running a company in the 18th century, so it was quite a special situation."

At the smaller French champagne house of Canard-Duchene they pack cases of wine to ship to newly developed international markets such as China and Russia.  The champagne producer, which has a sizable share of the French market, knows in order to maintain its profits it must increase market share outside the country. Canard-Duchene says the company hopes its champagne will be on store shelves in more than a dozen countries in the next two years.

Other French champagne makers are looking to do the same, trying to capitalize on the uniqueness of their product. Many countries make sparkling wine but the French insist there is only one champagne and they have fought many legal battles to make sure if the bottle says ?champagne,? it comes from this region of eastern France.