Amid champagne dispute, Russian winemaker doubts new law will boost local sales

·5-min read

As controversy bubbles over a new Russian law requiring bottles of French champagne and other foreign fizz to have a reference to “sparkling wine” on the bottle, Russian winemaker Abrau-Durso said Tuesday that the law would do little to spur on sales of Russia’s “shampanskoye”.

Champagne makers are used to having the prestigious name usurped by rival producers here and there, but Russian President Vladimir Putin has upped the ante by signing a law reserving the appellation for Russian sparkling wine, which has prompted a call for a bubbly blockade.

Pavel Titov, the president of Abrau-Durso and co-owner with his father, told Reuters that he did not believe the new law would change the level of competition in Russia’s market.

“We are in completely different price segments – imported French champagne is many times more expensive,” he said.

Shares in Abrau-Durso, which last year renamed its “Russkoye shampanskoye” brand “Russkoye igristoe”, or Russian sparkling, were trading up 0.5 percent on the day on Tuesday and at one point almost 9 percent up since the start of the week.

Abrau-Durso exports its wines to 24 countries but not France, Titov said.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in parliament on Tuesday that France would react in the next few days to the Russian measure and that if it was found to be in violation of World Trade Organization rules, Paris would seek recourse.

French champagne producers are fiercely protective of the AOC – or Appellation of Controlled Origin – that is supposed to give them exclusive use of the word in countries that adhere to the Lisbon Agreement on distinctive geographical indications.

But Russia is not a signatory, and Putin signed a law last week that would forbid the use of “Shampanskoye” – the Russian translation of champagne – on imported bottles.

French producers can still use the word in French, but will also have to write “sparkling wine” in Cyrillic on the back of bottles – a heresy for brands that say nothing on Earth can match their distinctive bubbly.

Outrage in France

“Denying the Champenois the right to use the name ‘champagne’ in Cyrillic is scandalous: it is our common heritage and the apple of our eye,” Maxime Toubart and Jean-Marie Barillère, co-presidents of France’s Champagne Committee, said in a statement.

The committee, which groups grape growers and producers in France’s Champagne region, also called on diplomats to push for a change of the “unacceptable law”, and urged their members to halt all shipments to Russia until further notice.

French Agriculture Minister Julien Denormandie said Tuesday that “champagne” was a name that could only be used on sparkling wines from the eponymous region in France.

“You can imagine the reaction of the French authorities,” Denormandie told Sud Radio. “The word Champagne comes from that beautiful region of France where champagne is produced.”

Though Russia may not be the world’s biggest champagne market – it ranks 15th in terms of the number of champagne bottles it imports – it’s an important one because Russians tend to buy expensive bottles.

Titov told French media on Saturday he hoped the issue, which led some in the French champagne industry to urge producers to halt shipments to Russia, would be resolved in favour of global norms and standards.

Moët Hennessy, owned by the luxury conglomerate LVMH, said Sunday that it would comply with the law and would resume exports of its brands, including Dom Perignon, Moët & Chandon and Veuve Clicquot, “as soon as possible”.

Cigarettes, perfume and sorbet

The Champagne Committee said the new law “calls into question more than 20 years of bilateral talks between the European Union and Russia on the protection of AOCs”.

It railed against Russia for not informing producers in advance of the change and said it is “determined to pursue discussions with the Russian authorities to obtain the exclusive right to the champagne name”.

Launched in 1937 under Joseph Stalin, the “Sovetskoye Shampanskoye” brand aimed to make the elite bourgeois drink acceptable for the proletariat.

Similarly, several Soviet republics created their own cognac, or “konyak”.

Such drinks were produced en masse and sold at affordable prices, but they were recognised as being pale imitations of the real French products.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the “shampanskoye” label persisted, which began to pose problems for Russia, especially after it joined the World Trade Organization in 2012.

It remains synonymous today with a festive but cheap drink.

According to the association of Russian makers of sparkling wines, total output can reach 220 million bottles per year, the bulk of which use a very different production method from the one used in France.

As suggested by the term AOC, the right to label a product is restricted to those made in the region. Champagne makers also have to follow strict production methods.

It’s a name that champagne makers have been battling to protect since 1843.

And the fight has not just been about using the name on sparkling wine.

They’ve worked to block a whole range of unrelated products from trying to profit from champagne’s reputation, from cigarettes to an Yves Saint Laurent perfume.

Most recently they won a case against German supermarket chain Aldi over a champagne-flavoured sorbet, not because it violated the AOC, but because it was deemed untruthful as the dessert was judged to not taste of champagne.

It’s a battle many in France will continue fighting “without fail”, Trade Minister Franck Riester said on Twitter.

“We’re closely following the implications of this new Russian wine law together.”

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)

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