EPERNAY, France – In a chilly windowless basement in this provincial French city, workers stack bottles of bubbly. Not just any bubbly, but le vrai champagne, which thanks to a special protected status can only be made in the Champagne region of eastern France.
“A lot of people want to use the name,’ says Marie Genand, a lawyer for the Comité Champagne, which oversees production and trade for the Champagne region’s 15,000 winemakers.
But in a deft display of soft power, one 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 in the Russian market for sparkling wines produced in Russia.
Imported French champagne can no longer call itself…champagne.
“We were shocked,” said Genand of the new Russian law.
But for now, many French champagne producers are caving in.
Moët Hennessy, arguably the most recognizable French champagne house, said it’s already spent hundreds of thousands of euros to change its labels to comply with the new Russian law.
Others, like fifth-generation champagne maker Marie Collard, are undecided.
“I can understand the Russians wanting to defend their own sparkling wine,” Collard said. “But the word champagne belongs to this region, we hold it close to our hearts.”
She and her husband started their own brand, Collard-Picard, in 1996.
Today they produce more than 150,000 bottles a year, with a good clientele in Russia.
But she’s not ready to change her labels, even if it means losing business.
“It’s also about respect for our ancestors,” Collard said. “If the name champagne has any value today, it’s because we have incredibly strict production rules in Champagne which cannot be compared to vineyards elsewhere.”
29-year-old Rachel Hardy from Belgium is tasting a flight of Collard’s champagne for her upcoming wedding when she overhears the conversation and nods in eager agreement.
“You need the ground, you need the climate, you need people working and learning how to work with the grapes for ages from their parents and grandparents!” Hardy said. “You can’t just decide to make champagne outside of Champagne, it’s not your call.”
But Hardy also admits she is slightly curious about the Russian version.
Russians are equally proud of their product, which even though the Soviet Union is long gone is still sold as “Soviet Champagne.”
The idea for Kremlin champagne goes back to the days of Joseph Stalin, who in 1936 acted to provide sparkling wine to the Soviet masses, dramatically increasing local production to millions of bottles a year.
But could a sparkling wine by any other name than champagne still taste as sweet?
The French are hoping the Kremlin will revise its new labeling law.
Genand with the Comité Champagne says her organization is hoping 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 in a friendly toast.