French winemakers have been boiling with anger the past week following reports that Russia had adopted new legislation stipulating that the term “champagne” can only be applied to wine produced in Russia, and that producers from France’s world-famous Champagne region must label their bubbly “sparkling wine.”
Some of that outrage is justified, some of it misguided, but this much is certain: the new law, signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday, grants Russian makers of sparkling wine sole permission to label their product as “shampanskoye,” while all foreign producers must use the Russian term for sparkling wine on the back of their bottles. This includes winemakers in the eponymous French region from which champagne takes its name.
It’s a move that flies in the face of the Appellation d’Origine Controlée, a French certification system that seeks to protect the good names of the country’s famed products by holding them to rigorous standards. For example, Roquefort cheese must come from the Combalou caves of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon; cognac must come from the French region of Cognac; champagne must come from Champagne.
But despite what some media reports have suggested, Russia is neither prohibiting French winemakers from using “champagne” nor exploiting that word for locally made sparkling wine.
“Champagne wines have maintained the exclusive right to use the name ‘champagne’ in Latin characters, on the principal label,” said Stephen Stern, an Australian intellectual property lawyer who focuses on wine law and has extensive experience in defending the champagne name.
“The new Russian law requires genuine champagne producers to renounce any use of the term ‘shampanskoye’ – a translation of the name ‘champagne’ into Russian – and they need to use the term ‘sparkling wine’ in Cyrillic characters on the back label. Only Russian sparkling wines have got the right to use the name ‘shampanskoye,’” Stern told VICE World News.
French champagne producers like Moët & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot and G.H. Mumm can still slap the word “champagne” on their bottles and legally sell them in Russia — as long as they only use the French word, in Latin characters, and declare in Cyrillic on the back of the bottle that the product is “sparkling wine.” Those in Russia who are able to read these labels, or at least recognise them, will know that they’re looking at the real thing.
Others probably won’t, though. And here’s where things become problematic for French producers of champagne.
“There will be large numbers of Russian consumers who can’t read or speak English or French and can’t read Latin characters,” Stern said. “Therefore, when they look to buy sparkling wine, they’ll look for the Russian word ‘shampanskoye’ written in Cyrillic letters.”
While French champagne makers would previously label their Russian exports as “shampanskoye” in order to reach consumers who only read Cyrillic, they are now forbidden from doing so. Henceforth, “shampanskoye” (шампанское) must only refer to sparkling wines that have been produced in Russia using grapes from Russia.
“This new law is certainly not in the interests of Russian consumers, as it deprives them [of] important information (previously available) and is very likely to lead to confusion,” Stern said. “These new laws are not good for Russian consumers, importers or champagne producers.”
The added requirement of having to label their products as “sparkling wine” is an added insult to the champagne producers, Stern noted, describing it as an “an unnecessary, humiliating requirement” that “rubs the noses of the Champenois in the dirt.”
“Sparkling wine is a huge category that includes sparkling wine made from anything, anywhere,” he said. “The French are obviously very proud of champagne, and they only call it champagne – they never call it sparkling wine. To be forced to put onto the market their own product and to label it ‘sparkling wine’ is, some might say, designed to humiliate or to taunt.”
Russia’s new laws have divided members of France’s champagne industry.
Moët Hennessy, the maker of Veuve Clicquot and Dom Pérignon champagnes, announced on Sunday that it would comply with the new legislation and begin adding the sparkling wine designation to the back of bottles being exported to Russia, Reuters reported. Meanwhile, on Monday, France’s champagne industry group denounced the laws and called for all champagne exports to Russia to be halted.
“The Champagne Committee deplores the fact that this legislation does not ensure that Russian consumers have clear and transparent information about the origins and characteristics of wine,” co-presidents Maxime Toubart and Jean-Marie Barillere said in a statement, according to France24.
The effects of the Russian law have already spilled over into the stock market. Shares in Abrau-Durso, which produces Russian sparkling wines, jumped as much as 9 percent on Monday.
However, Abrau-Durso’s president, Pavel Titov, told Radio France Internationale that his firm did not have any sparkling wines that would be called “champagne” – and that he hoped any issues around the new law would be resolved.
“It is very important to protect the Russian wines on our market,” he said on Saturday. “But the legislation must be reasonable and not contradict common sense… I have no doubts that the real champagne is made in the Champagne region of France.”
Many agree, including the 120 nations where the name “champagne” has legal protection, according to the Lisbon Agreement for the Protection of Appellations of Origin and their International Registration. Russia is not a signatory of that agreement, and there is no law that prohibits Russian winemakers from labelling their bottles with the name “champagne” in Latin characters.
Rather, Sten said there is a “diplomatic oral historical deal” between Russia and the Comite Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne, which imposes an informal ban on their use of the Latin name. Putin’s new law does not appear to change the terms of this agreement.
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