France’s foreign minister has weighed-in behind French champagne growers who say they’ve been robbed of their heritage after a Russian law ordered non-Russian producers to label their bottles as sparkling wine.
“Champagne” is a sparkling wine from the region of the same name, north east of Paris and thanks to the AOC – Appellation of Controlled Origin – it cannot be produced elsewhere.
The AOC is meant to give champagne producers exclusive use of the word in countries that have signed up to the Lisbon agreement on distinctive geographical locations.
There are currently 120 countries, but Russia is not one of them.
Last Friday President Vladimir Putin signed new legislation forbidding the use of the word “Shampanskoye” (Russian for champagne) on imported bottles. And while non-Russian producers can still use the word, in French, they have to write “sparkling wine” in Cyrillic on the back.
Champagne producers are outraged over the usurping of their cherished appellation.
“Champagne is part of our common heritage. We call on the French State and the EU to accompany and support us in what amounts to stealing our heritage and the apple of our eye.”
Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian was quick to lend support, telling parliament on Tuesday: “We will act in the coming days, on the bilateral and European level, to defend our producers’ interests”.
If necessary, he said, Paris would take the issue to the World Trade Organisation (WTO), which Russia joined in 2012, though he hoped dialogue would “allow us to resolve this problem”.
Arnaud Dubien, an expert on Franco-Russian relations, tweeted that bottles of "Veuve Putin" were circulating on Russian social media.
Is it really champagne?
The Russian legislation is complex and French winegrowers are only now beginning to wade through the lengthy document.
“It’s difficult for the moment to evaluate the impact of this new legislation,” said Egoroff, regretting that the legislation does not give Russian consumers clear and transparent information about the origins and characteristics of wine.
“When consumers in Russia go onto a website and click on the 'champagne tag', will it really be champagne? I’m not sure.”
The committee also railed against Russia for not informing producers in advance of the change.
France produces some 231 million bottles of champagne each year, with exports worth around €2.5bn.
Most goes to the US and the UK, and exports to Russia are relatively small: "Between 1.8-to-1.9 million bottles a year,” Egoroff says.
Russia imports 50m litres of sparkling wine each year and 13 percent of that is French champagne.
The market may not be huge - it ranks 15th in the world - but it is significant because Russians tend to buy expensive bottles.
However by Monday the group, owned by the luxury conglomerate LVMH, had changed its tack and said it would resume exports of its brands including Dom Perignon, Moet & Chandon and Veuve Clicquot “as soon as possible”.
“Moët Hennessy champagne houses have always followed current law wherever they operate and will restart deliveries as soon as they can make the [labelling] changes,” the group said in a statement on Monday.
Smaller producers don’t necessarily have the luxury of re-doing their labels so quickly and the Champagne Committee has called on its members to stop exporting champagne to Russia.
“There’s no point sending the bottles with the current labelling, they’ll be blocked by Russian customs,” said Egoroff.
Boosting the Russian market
Moscow has already vetoed or restricted European products such as Parmesan cheese, gouda or Iberian ham in favour of promoting local producers. The “champagne challenge” is another step in Russian protectionism in the face of EU sanctions over the annexation of Crimea and more recently the arrest of opposition figure Alexei Navalny.
Putin is now giving the “shampanskoye” sparkling wine industry a boost. It originated in Crimea, annexed by Russia in 2014.
“The aim is to favour producers in the Crimea region of Ukraine and in the region of Krasnodar in the south of Russia,” says RFI’s correspondent in Moscow, Daniel Vallot.
“Every year some 220 million bottles of this Russian ‘champagne’ are sold on the domestic market.”
The tradition goes back to the Soviet era when in 1937 Joseph Stalin launched the “Sovetskoye Shampanskoye” brand, offering the proletariat an alternative to bourgeois French champagne.
“It was a cheap sparkling wine of mediocre quality, produced en masse, and aimed at rivalling French champagne which was popular with businessmen and other purveyors of capitalism,” Vallot says.
While the French Champagne Committee mulls over its prospective loss, the beneficiaries of the new law could be at the higher end of Russian “champagne” production.
The most famous Russian sparkling wine producer is Abrau-Durso, on the shores of lake Abrau in the Krasnodar region.
At the end of the 19th century French specialists were brought in to help make sparkling wine and after the Revolution the Russians carried on alone. Until recently their production carried the “Sovetskoye Shampanskoye” label.
But Abrau-Durso’s president, Pavel Titov, told RFI that his firm “does not have sparkling wines that would be called ‘champagne’ in its portfolio”.
“It is very important to protect Russian wines on our market,” he said, “but the legislation must be reasonable and not contradict common sense. I have no doubt that the real champagne is made in the Champagne region of France.”
Shares in the winery are held jointly by the government and a group of companies headed by Pavel Titov’s son, Boris.
On Monday, Abrau-Durso’s shares rose by 3 percent.