I rarely feel sorry for French winemakers, specifically the “famous” champagne houses of Epernay and Reims. Yes, I once paid a nice visit, and enjoyed many tours and tastings. But I always reserve some judgement for the snobby French attitude about sparkling wine, or what they prefer to call it, champagne.
Rarely do I agree with the Russkies, but this is just the latest kick in the teeth for a country whose wine regions are under great pressure. Read this, from the Washington Post:
Russia’s appreciation of French champagne spans two centuries — back to when a czar once declared he’d drink nothing but Madame Clicquot’s 1811 vintage from France’s famed Champagne vineyards.
Now the countries are locked in what the French media has dubbed a “champagne war,” over what Paris considers an attempt by Moscow to undermine its legendary brand.
A law signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin on July 2 will require French champagne makers to add a “sparkling wine” reference to the back of their bottles sold in Russia. The French champagne industry has long considered itself separate from that catchall category because it says the name “champagne” refers exclusively to the bubbly produced in the French region of the same name.
The new legislation also stipulates that makers of Russian “shampanskoye” — the Russian word for champagne — will get a unique status, exempting it from the sparkling wine note on the back.
The law has uncorked ridicule from even the Kremlin’s fiercest backers and sparked “outrage” from France’s Champagne Committee, the powerful umbrella group of French champagne makers. The European Commission even weighed in. Spokeswoman Miriam Garcia Ferrer said it “will do everything necessary to protect our rights and take the necessary steps if this law enters into force.”
The spat first popped Friday when a letter from the Russian distribution center of Moët Hennessy, the French maker of venerable names such as Veuve Clicquot and Dom Pérignon champagnes, leaked on Facebook. In the letter, Moët informed its Russian clients that it had suspended deliveries of all champagne to the country because it had “not confirmed” whether it would change its labels to say “sparkling wine” for the Russian market.
Russian social media fizzed with mockery.
Russian industry experts said the new mandate has been blown out of proportion. The goal, they say, is to put all “sparking wine” imports — from Spanish cava to Italian prosecco to French champagne — under one umbrella. Labels on the front can stay the same.
Pavel Titov, the president of Abrau-Durso, a top Russian sparkling wine producer, told the state-run RIA Novosti: “It is extremely important for winemakers in Russia to work in the overall landscape of the global wine industry. For me, there is no doubt that real champagne is made in the Champagne region.”
On Sunday, Moët Hennessy acquiesced, agreeing to add the “sparkling wine” designation to the back of its bottles sold in Russia. Andrei Grigoriev, a partner at Russia’s Double Magnum wine consulting group, said acquiring the necessary paperwork to comply with the new law could take “months,” perhaps delaying shipments.
France’s Champagne Committee appealed to all French champagne producers to halt exports to Russia until further notice and urged French and European Union diplomats to lobby on its behalf.
“It is our common heritage and the apple of our eye,” said two co-presidents of the organization, which frequently uses the slogan “Champagne only comes from Champagne, France.” “I was shocked when I saw the decision,” agreed Olivier Gergaud, a food and wine researcher at France’s Kedge Business School. Gergaud compared the Russian move to an impostor pretending to have a Harvard degree. (Equally funny!)
France’s champagne industry faced a historic crisis last year, as the coronavirus pandemic shuttered clubs and bars, sending sales of bubbly into a tailspin. Overall, champagne exports declined by 18 percent last year, compared with 2019.
But sales have recently increased again, said Gergaud, as people are catching up on anniversaries, weddings and other festive occasions. Russia, however, accounted for less than 1 percent of French champagne sales last year.
“It’s for the elite,” said Vadim Drobiz, the director of Russia’s Center for the Study of Federal and Regional Alcohol Markets. “It’s not affordable for the majority of the Russian population.”The French champagne industry’s furious response to the Russian legislation reflects a long-standing effort to protect the “champagne” designation of origin against attempts from abroad to, quite literally, water it down.
I find this episode funny, ironic, and “I told you so” in every way. The French are having issues in their wine industry. They are finally grasping twenty first century technology and agricultural wisdom. Yet, on wine tours in France, they continually “bad mouth” American wines in general, and Napa Valley wines in particular.
Maybe this is KARMA?
PS: Russian wines and champagnes are terrible!!!