France and Russia clash over who will call Champagne … ‘Champagne’: NPR
Pavel Golovkin / AP
EPERNAY, France – In a freezing, windowless basement in this provincial French town, workers stack bottles of champagne. Not just any bubbly, but real champagne, which thanks to a special protection status can only be made in Champagne, in eastern France.
“A lot of people want to use the name”, explains Marie Genand, lawyer for the Champagne Committee, which oversees the production and trade of the 15,000 Champagne winegrowers.
But in a clever display of soft power, a world leader is putting centuries of French tradition to the test.
In early July, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law reserving the use of the word champagne on the Russian market for sparkling wines produced in Russia.
Imported French champagne can no longer be called … champagne.
“We were shocked,” Genand said of the new Russian law.
But for now, many French champagne producers are giving in.
Perhaps the most recognizable French champagne house, Moët Hennessy, said it has already spent hundreds of thousands of euros on cash its labels to comply with the new Russian law.
Rebecca Rosman / NPR
Others, like the fifth generation champagne Marie Collard, are undecided.
“I can understand that the Russians want to defend their own sparkling wine,” Collard said. “But the word champagne belongs to this region, it is close to our hearts.”
She and her husband launched their own brand, Collard-Picard, in 1996.
Today, they produce more than 150,000 bottles a year, with a good customer base in Russia.
But she is not ready to change her label, even if it means losing business.
“It’s also a matter of respect for our ancestors,” Collard said. “If the name of champagne has any value today, it’s because we have incredibly strict production rules in Champagne that cannot be compared to vineyards elsewhere.”
Rachel Hardy, 29, from Belgium, tastes a flight of Collard champagne for her upcoming wedding when she overhears the conversation and nods in agreement.
“You need the soil, you need the climate, you need people who have worked and learned to work grapes for ages with their parents and grandparents! said Hardy. “You can’t just decide to make champagne outside of champagne, it’s not your call.”
Rebecca Rosman / NPR
But Hardy also admits that she is slightly curious about the Russian version.
The Russians are also proud of their product, which, even though the Soviet Union is long gone, is still sold as “Soviet champagne. “
The idea of Kremlin champagne dates back to the time of Joseph Stalin, who in 1936 acted to supply sparkling wine to the Soviet masses, dramatically increasing local production to millions of bottles per year.
But could a sparkling wine under a name other than champagne still taste so sweet?
The French are hoping the Kremlin will revise its new labeling law.
Genand of the Champagne Committee says his organization hopes to reach some sort of compromise with Moscow in the near future.
“We are working with the Champenois, the French government and other politicians to have the law suspended first and try to discuss with the Russian parties to have something different,” Genand said.
Something she hopes will end with a friendly toast.