Champagne, real champagne that is, comes from the Champagne region in the north-east of France. About this connoisseurs and highlivers alike are in no doubt. But anyone anywhere can put bubbles in white wine, so long as they know the technique. Faced with this difficulty, manufacturers of true fizz have had to fight hard to protect the exclusivity of their product. On the whole they have triumphed, but their success has created problems of its own. The first decades of the twentieth century saw serious rioting in France over the question of what did and what did not qualify as champagne. Other businesses have sought to cash in on the drink’s cachet and in recent times some of its most famous brands have been adopted by sectors of society thoroughly at odds with their traditional customer base.
Although champagne is quintessentially French, it was the English who first developed a taste for sparkling wines from the Champagne region, although the fizz was acquired during transportation rather than by design. They were certainly ahead of the French in manufacturing bottles thick enough to cope with the pressure of the bubbles and in resurrecting the Roman practice of bottling with corks. Be that as it may, during the early eighteenth century, vintners from Champagne began to encourage a second, carbon dioxide-producing fermentation inside their bottles of wine via the judicious addition of rock sugar and yeast.
In 2002, in tandem with Veuve Clicquot, the CIVC successfully took a beer manufacturer to Court In Belgium for using the term ‘Champagnebier’ on its products.
During the middle of the nineteenth century, champagne manufacturers worked overtime to cultivate a sophisticated image for their products. In 1866, for example, Moët et Chandon enlisted the help of the suave English music hall performer George Leybourne as a celebrity endorsement. As well as undertaking never to drink anything else in public, he wrote several songs promoting Moët Champagne, such as the smash hit ‘Champagne Charlie’. Laurent Perrier’s tactic was to solicit endorsements from royalty and the aristocracy, including the likes of King Leopold II of Belgium and The Marchioness of Cambridge.
But, fast forward to 2006 and the drink’s high-class image goes flat. The American hip-hop community has developed a love affair with the Cristal brand. Is this the loyal customer base and the endorsement Cristal had in mind? Cristal MD Frédéric Rouzaud told the Economist: ‘What can we do? We can’t forbid people from buying it. I’m sure Dom Pérignon or Krug would be delighted to have their business’. Hip-hop icon Jay Zee retaliated and announced that his bar chain 40-40 would no longer be stocking Cristal.
Protecting the brand
As the world’s penchant for the bubbles grew, so too did the industry’s need for legal protection. It successfully lobbied for an ‘appellation d’origine contrôllé’ clause to be incorporated in the Treaty of Madrid (1891) and in 1908 the French government issued a decree delineating the area whose sparkling wines could be described as champagne. Growers outside the designated region started rioting and the act was repealed in 1911. At this point, growers inside the region decided to riot. This eventually led to the reinstatement of the decree in 1927 (it remains in force). Finally, at the end of World War I the legal status of champagne in Europe was reinforced as part of the Treaty of Versailles.
Unfortunately, although the US signed up to the treaty, it was never ratified in the Senate. French champagne producers also suffered a blow when the US Department of Agriculture deemed the term generic in 1934. As a result, American wine producers are allowed to use the word ‘champagne’ on their labels, provided they clearly state the place of origin.
Fighting in the courts
Since 1941, both the production of champagne and the use of the term to describe sparkling wines have been policed by the Comité Interprofessionel du vin de Champagne (CIVC). It has fought vigorously in the courts to defend the rights of champagne producers. Notable victories in the UK have included Bollinger v Costa Brava (1957-8), in which the makers of a drink called Perelada were prevented from describing it as ‘Spanish champagne’. In 2002, in tandem with Veuve Clicquot, it successfully took a beer manufacturer to court in Belgium for using the term ‘champagnebier’ on its products. Although CIVC is clearly an organisation with teeth, there are limits to its powers. In July 2007, bubbly-quaffing British entrepreneur Steve Jackson defeated a bid to make him give up his www.champagne.co.uk domain name, marking another fascinating chapter in the ever-complicated champagne story.
This article first appeared in IP Review, issue 19