The battle of Champagne against Champagne


Champagne’s quarrel with Russia is a case where the region has tasted its own medicine.

Two things recently reminded me of the poor besieged winegrowers of the small wine-growing region of Champagne and their 50-year struggle to keep their name (a name that has been around since 885 BCE).

The first was Russia’s recent stipulation that all non-Russian sparkling wines must have the words “sparkling wine” on the label (reverse side), while the Russian “Shampanskoye” – which seems vaguely familiar – is reserved for only Russian bubbles. The second was Margaret Rand’s recent article on this website on the growth of still champagne.

For the Russian affair, there really is no need to add to the moans and gnashing of teeth – of course, another breast stroke from Vladimir Putin, which will undoubtedly trigger belligerent smirks at home – but, let’s face it, champagne IS a sparkling wine. And as LVMH recently pointed out, the company complies with labeling requirements in its export markets. You might as well get mad at the requirement to print a Surgeon General warning on bottles exported to the United States. Storm in a flute, right?

Well, maybe. If you are mad at the Russian movement, maybe this episode shows that, quite simply, the powerful get what they want. News reports initially stated that LVMH had suspended exports to Russia and it looked like we were about to see La Grande Dame again march on Moscow – or was it La Grande Armée? Anyway, jokes in bad taste aside, it turned out that the export bottling campaign was suspended so that LVMH could change the back labels … and everything flies away. Despite the growls, Champagne spilled over.

But imagine that a smaller actor – the one who failed to annex part of a sovereign state over the past decade – attempted a similar move? Imagine that the British Wine Society marketed British sparkling wine and called it “ChamPayne”, and it caught on, and the UK required all foreign bubbles to have a back label saying “sparkling wine. “, then legally, in the United Kingdom, protected the name ChamPayne.

Imaginary games

Imagine even that you live in a wine town, existing since the year 885, called Champagne. Imagine that you were producing wine there two centuries before the Champagne even made bubbles; imagine you have used your village name on labels since the 1920s; imagine that you tried to keep your name and your wines quiet against the giant that is, as admitted by LVMH, the sparkling wine of Champagne in France; imagine that you are Champagne, in the canton of Vaud (officially contracted to VD, and the cause of some gay English speakers), in Switzerland.

Their legal battle has continued since the trade deals with Europe in the 1970s Рand continues. Champagne VD belongs to the Swiss appellation of Bonvillars, but Swiss wine labeling laws generally allow cadastral or commune names to appear on the label if 100 percent of the grapes come from that area (the Valais appellation, for example, is full of them: Ent̩ment, V̩troz, Leytron, Balavaud, Chamoson).

Back to Champagne VD and some of the stories are amazing. The local cooperative currently markets its Champagne Chasselas wines under the name “C-ampagne”. A story from 1996 saw a local winemaker bring his Swiss champagne to France itself. Its 3000 bottles were seized in a supermarket on the other side of the border, “proving, by the way, that there are Swiss wine growers who know how to export”, explained a local report, pincer-sans, in 1998.

Is it now enough for Champagne VD winegrowers to put “still wine” on their back label? It’s a move that would clearly fit Russia – and, by extension, Champagne FR would certainly be happy with it.

What’s in a name?

Should Champagne VD have simply changed the name of its wine slightly? I would like to say that if they had called it Collines de Champagne, they might have gotten away with it. Because, after all, the Coteaux Champenois (Champagne hills) are enough to make an official distinction between the sparkling and still wines of this region. However, I am reasonably sure that any attempt by the Swiss to use a variation on the name would have been pursued by Champagne’s professional body, the CIVC.

And on Margaret Rand’s play. Or rather, on the rise of Champagne in the still wine sector. Which is doubly unfair for the producers of Champagne VD, because their argument has always been that their Champagne is still, not sparkling. And now, from the armored cradle of Champagne, France, we still get Champagne – sorry: Coteaux Champenois. Because only the Champenois of France can swap the Champagne appellation.

It was even more obvious if we go back in time a little. In 1950s France the difference between sparkling and still was “Champagne” and “Vin Originaire de la Champagne Viticole” which later became “Vin Nature de la Champagne” (these natural wines are everywhere). Notice, however, a common thread running through it all? Yes, they all have the word Champagne in them. All except for the very Champagne-y “Champenois”, which now makes the difference, apparently.

In the Franco-Helvétienne quarrel (because, let’s face it, that’s all), I think that the French Champenois are wrong here. The production of wine in Champagne VD will never be that tiny – it is a small commune – and unless they start to extend the borders of this commune (because this does not happen in the other Champagne, is right?) I’ll be on their side. Their bottles (mainly screw cap and 700 ml) are hardly competitive. And any duped by unwitting customers is going to be the retailer’s business. Plus, it’s just as much a Swiss name as anyone else – indeed, no one blinks at Fine Champagne from Cognac.

But as we’ve seen, the principle of things only matters when you’re the big guy. And these principles are yours to change, right Vladimir?