The Battle of Champagne versus Champagne

The rolling hills of Champagne – the one in Switzerland.
© Swiss Wine | The rolling hills of Champagne – the one in Switzerland.
Champagne's spat with Russia is a case of the region getting a taste of its own medicine.
By Oliver Styles | Posted Friday, 16-Jul-2021

Two things recently made me think of the poor, embattled winemakers of the tiny wine region of Champagne and their 50 year-long fight to hold on to their name (a name that exists since 885 BCE).

The first was Russia’s recent stipulation that all non-Russian sparkling wine must have the words "sparkling wine" on the (back) label, while the Russian "Shampanskoye"– which sounds vaguely familiar – is reserved for Russian bubbles alone. The second was Margaret Rand's recent piece on this website about the growth of still Champagne.

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For the Russian affair, there’s really no need to add to the wailing and gnashing of teeth – sure, another chest-thumping move by Vladimir Putin, which will doubtless trigger some 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 angry at the requirement to print a Surgeon General's warning on bottles exported to the USA. Storm in a flute, right?

Well, maybe. If you're angry about the Russian move, maybe what this episode shows is that, quite simply, the powerful get their way. News reports initially stated that LVMH had suspended exports to Russia and it looked like we were about to see La Grande Dame march on Moscow again – or was that La Grande Armée? Anyway, tasteless jokes aside, it turned out that the export bottling run was being suspended so that LVMH could amend the back labels… and it all fizzes out. Despite the grumblings, Champagne rolled over.

But imagine a smaller player – one that hadn’t managed to annex part of a sovereign state in the last decade – had tried a similar move? Imagine the UK's The Wine Society had commercialized UK sparkling wine and called it "ChamPayne", and that this had caught on, and that the UK had demanded all foreign bubbles have a back label saying "sparkling wine" and then legally, in the UK, protected the name ChamPayne.

Imaginary games

Imagine, even, that you live in a wine-producing town, extant since the year 885, called Champagne. Imagine you've been producing wine there two centuries before Champagne even got onto bubbles; imagine you've used your village name on labels since the 1920s; imagine you tried to hold on to your name and your still wines in the face of the behemoth that is, as LVMH have admitted, sparkling wine from Champagne in France; imagine you are Champagne, in the canton of Vaud (officially contracted to VD, and the cause of some anglophone mirth), in Switzerland.

Their legal battle has gone on since trade accords with Europe in the 1970s – and are ongoing. Champagne VD is in the Swiss appellation of Bonvillars but Switzerland's wine labeling laws generally allow cadastral or commune names to appear on the label if 100 percent of the grapes are from that zone (the Valais appellation, for instance, is replete with these: Fully, Vétroz, Leytron, Balavaud, Chamoson).

Back to Champagne VD and some of the stories are amazing. The local cooperative currently sells its Champagne Chasselas wines as "C-ampagne". One story from 1996 saw a local winemaker get his Swiss Champagne into France itself. His 3000 bottles were seized in a supermarket over the border, "proving, in passing, that there are some Swiss winemakers who know how to export" said a local news report, deadpan, in 1998.

Is it now simply enough for the winemakers of Champagne VD to put "still wine" on their back label? This is a move that would, clearly, be fine in Russia – and, by extension, surely Champagne FR would be happy with it.

What's in a name?

Should Champagne VD have simply changed its wine name slightly? I'd like to say that, had they called it Collines de Champagne (hills of Champagne), they might have got away with it. Because, after all, Coteaux Champenois (hillsides of Champagne) is enough of an official distinction to make between the sparkling and still wines of that region. However, I'm reasonably sure that any attempt by the Swiss to use a variation on the name would have been pursued by Champagne's trigger-happy trade body, the CIVC.

And onto Margaret Rand's piece. Or rather, onto Champagne's growth into the still wine sector. Which is doubly unfair to the producers of Champagne VD, because their argument has always been that their Champagne was still, not sparkling. And now, from the armor-plated cradle of Champagne, France, we get still Champagne – sorry: Coteaux Champenois. Because only the Champenois of France can trade off of the name Champagne.

It was even more blatant if you go back in time a bit. Going back to 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" (those natural wines are everywhere). Notice, though, a common thread through all of them? Yeah, they all have the word Champagne in them. All apart from the very Champagne-y "Champenois", which is enough of a difference now, apparently.

In the Franco-Helvetian squabble (because, let's face it, that’s all it is), I think the French Champenois are in the wrong here. Wine production in Champagne VD will never be anything other than minuscule – it's a small commune – and unless they start expanding the borders of that commune (because that doesn't happen in the other Champagne, does it?) I'll be on their side. Their bottles (predominantly screwcap and 700ml) are hardly competing. And any duping of unwitting customers is going to be the business of the retailer. Furthermore, it's just as much a Swiss name as anyone else's – indeed, no-one bats an eyelid about Fine Champagne from Cognac.

But as we've seen, the principle of thing only matters when you're the big guy. And those principles are yours to change, aren't they Vladimir?

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