Russia's Storm in a Champagne Flute

Champagne will be relegated to mere sparkling wine on the labels of Russian bottles.
© Getty Images | Champagne will be relegated to mere sparkling wine on the labels of Russian bottles.
There has been a lot of sound and fury over a Russian labeling law change, but what actually happened?
By Caroline Henry | Posted Friday, 09-Jul-2021

It was a little bit of bureaucratic box-ticking that was heard around the world.

On Friday July 2, Vladimir Putin signed a law prohibiting all use of the Russian word "champansko?é" (Cchampagne in Russian) in the Cyrillic alphabet for all sparkling wine bar the local Russian sparkling wine, better known as "Rossiisko?é champansko?é" (Russian Champagne) or "Sovietsko?é champansko?é" (Soviet Champagne). Champagne, which has a long history of defending its name at all cost, lost its mind.

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The news first broke in France in the weekend, after LVMH (owner of the brands Mo?t & Chandon, Veuve Cliquot, Ruinart, Mercier and Krug) issued a press release with a threat to suspend all its Champagne exports to Russia. On Monday, the CIVC followed suit by issuing their own indignant press release in which Jean-Marie Barillère, president of the Union des Maisons de Champagne (UMC) and co-president of the Comité Champagne (CIVC) and Maxime Toubart, the other co-president of the CIVC and president of the Syndicat Général des Vignerons (SGV), urged all Champagne producers to refrain shipping wine to Russia "until further notice".

The CIVC expressed its outrage, saying "depriving the Champenois of the right to use the word Champagne is scandalous; it's our heritage and the apple of our eye".  The press release also deplored the lack of communication by the Russians regarding this new law, and claimed it questioned the longstanding bilateral discussions concerning the protection of the appellations between France and Russia.

However, the protection of the Champagne appellation in Russia has long been a grey area, even after 20 years of bilateral discussions. According to Charles Goemaere, general director and legal expert of the CIVC, the Russians acknowledge the Champagne appellation by having accepted that no other sparkling wine may call itself champagne in Roman characters. Nevertheless, in the Cyrillic alphabet, the French sparkling and its Russian counterpart shared the right to use the word "champansko?é".

The new Russian law now preserves that right exclusively for the Russian sparklers, and if the Champenois want to add a Cyrillic back label, they will have to use "sparkling wine", just like any other sparkling wine from anywhere else in the world. Not so easy for a region that is used to forcing all others to use this designation.

And thus, the battle has begun, first in the press, and since the beginning of this week at diplomatic level. Goemaere confirmed to Wine-Searcher that, as of July 6, both the French ministers of Foreign Affairs and Agriculture have agreed to consider the issue and if need be to make it a priority in the bilateral negotiations. A spokesperson for the European Commission also committed to study the issue as a priority to potentially instigate European pressure on Russia. Goemaere further explained the CIVC received a copy of the Russian law on July 5 and that they are now translating and analyzing the law, but "that it would take a little time to get to the bottom of the issue".

In the meantime, while everyone is trying to dot the i's and cross the t's, Goemaere, Barillère and Toubart are asking all Champagne producers to halt shipments to Russia until they feel they fully understand the issue and a potential solution has been negotiated.

Shrugging it off

Needless to say, this is not going down well with producers exporting to Russia. Chantal Bregeon-Gonet, from Champagne Philippe Gonet received a Russian order on July 6. When she checked with her Russian importer Bravo Trade regarding the new law, he told her that he had heard nothing about potential changes. Bregeon-Gonet affirmed the order will leave shortly, and as they do not add any Cyrillic writing to the back label, she laughed that nothing really changed for her.

Jean-Baptiste Geoffroy, from Champagne René Geoffroy, has also no intention to halt his wine shipments to Russia. "Russia is a growing market for us, and after a difficult year due to Covid-19, we will not bite off our nose to spite our face." He further added that since the US and Canada already required the sparkling wine designation on the back label, he could not see what the issue was.

Melanie Tarlant, from Champagne Tarlant, moreover explained that she did not plan to refuse orders, but as there were none pending, she would review the issue when an order came in.

Even though LVMH was quick to react when the law first came out, they have since backtracked, with Moët & Chandon issuing a statement saying they would only stop shipments while they made the necessary changes to comply with the new law, stressing that they have always complied with the laws of the countries to which they export.

One of the reasons why no-one is too keen to boycott the Russian market is that it has been expanding over the last 10 years. Total exports may "only" have been 1.9 million bottles in 2020, but that is roughly 30 percent higher than the 1.3 million bottles shipped to Russia in 2011. Moreover, the Russian market grew by 9 percent (from 1.7 million to 1.9 million bottles) in 2020, at a time that most other markets were retracting.

In addition, the traditional Sovietsko?é champansko?é consumer has a significant different socio-economic profile from the Champagne producer. Sovietsko?é champansko?é was created when Russia's prohibition ended in the 1920s to make "Champagne" available to everyone. True to its identity, it has remained a cheap, sweet, mass-produced beverage, while the drier Champagne remains only affordable for the Russian upper echelons. Difficult to confuse the two, even if the CIVC claims that preventing the use of the Cyrillic champansko?é for Champagne is misleading for the customer as it withholds important information.

Whether the new Russian law embodies a storm in a teacup, or the loss of the Champagne soul (as Barillère implied), it is unlikely that much will change in the very short term. Legal analysis and diplomacy are often time consuming, and economic benefits tend to outweigh more noble ones such as the defense of one’s reputation.

It may be a bitter pill to swallow, but right now there is little concrete action the CIVC can take to fight the new Russian law.

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