MOSCOW — 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 “Champagne” refers exclusively to the bubbly produced in the French region of the same name.
The new legislation also stipulates that makers of Russian “shamponskoye” — 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 July 2 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.
Vasya Oblomov, a popular Russian musician, joked on Twitter that the country should now call all cars produced in Russia “Mercedes” while labeling the German-made models “foreign-assembled cars.” Even Kremlin propagandist Margarita Simonyan, the editor in chief of the government-funded TV channel RT (formerly Russia Today), said the law “looks very silly.”
“Can someone clearly explain why Champagne can no longer be called Champagne?” she wrote on Twitter.
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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.
In a dig at Russia, the left-wing Libération newspaper published a photo of a half-naked Russian sailor pouring himself sparkling wine into what appeared to be a trophy mug.
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% 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% 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.”
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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.
At times, those efforts have taken bizarre turns. For example, France’s Champagne Committee has long been in a feud with a small Swiss village that is named Champagne but is banned from using its own name on wines and other products.
French Champagne makers have waged similar legal battles over consumer fraud or infringement on intellectual property in other countries.
“There is a long history of success in pursuing these types of cases,” food and wine researcher Kolleen Marie Guy wrote in an email. “The challenge is when it is a national-level decision, as is the case in Russia.”
Leonid Popovich, president of the Russian Union of Wine Growers and Winemakers, said Russia has been calling its sparkling wine “shampanskoye” for more than 100 years. The term was established under Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin to denote the cheap, accessible version of the sparkling drink once considered exclusively for the elite.
During the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century — when imperial Russian troops occupied France’s Champagne region and pillaged its vineyards — the soldiers were plied with bubbly by Madame Clicquot, the first woman to head a Champagne house. Lore says perhaps she thought the merriment might make them sluggish on the battlefield.
When the war was nearly over, Madame Clicquot looked for a market to save her business. She loaded the last of her Champagne in secret onto a Russia-bound ship.
Czar Alexander I later declared he would drink nothing other than Clicquot’s Champagne.
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At several bars and restaurants in the French capital, waiters and customers had a chance to sample the wares from the other side of the “Champagne war.” A bottle of Russian rosé Abrau-Durso “shampanskoye” — obtained by The Washington Post after numerous phone calls and visits to Russian stores in Paris — appeared to be a surprise success among customers.
“Congratulations, Russia,” said Anne-Carla Nicolas, a Parisian interior designer, who said she refined her champagne-tasting skills in her grandparents’ wine cellar.
“Seriously, I would buy this,” she concluded, after multiple rounds of smelling and drinking the Russian bubbly.
“I find it less dry than the Champagne one can have in the Champagne,” said Adeline Monney, a trained perfume designer from the Champagne region. “It almost has sweeter and more flowery notes.”
But it remained unclear whether the wine’s success near the Eiffel Tower was the norm or the exception. On Vivino, a popular wine rating app and online marketplace, Russian sparkling wines largely hover around a disappointing 2 or 3 on a 5-star scale.
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Noack reported from Paris. The Washington Post’s Natalia Abbakumova in Moscow contributed to this report.