You may be surprised to learn that the Champagne you’re drinking may not, in fact, be Champagne. Since the signing of the Treaty of Madrid in 1891, the term “Champagne” is legally reserved for sparkling wines made exclusively in the Champagne region of France. International treaties observe the law with varying levels of enforcement; for example, the US officially recognizes the treaty, but still allows some sparkling wine makers to use “Champagne” on their product labels. The treaty officially recognizes the Champagne region as the owners of the “Champagne” brand. Any sparkling wine mislabeled as Champagne can be seized and destroyed by French legal authorities, the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne.
Yet, the threat of destruction has not stopped hundreds of producers around the world from creating product labels with the Champagne name. Sparkling wine has a less prestigious image in many markets because consumers perceive it as a cheaper, poor-quality imitation of Champagne. Sparkling wine producers know that their product label is their wine’s most important selling tool. Using the term “Champagne” allows these producers to convey the sense of prestige that comes with the name, and consequently, drive down prices for genuine Champagne. This labeling practice is not unpopular — a recent study by Gomberg, Fredrikson & Associates states that over 50% of sparkling wine sold in the US is mislabeled as Champagne.
Since the region the wine is from is responsible for the taste and feel of a wine, this creates a problem. Winemakers usually label the region the grape was
grown in prominently on the bottle as the air, the moisture, the soil — the very chemical makeup of the ground in which it grows — affects the taste of a wine. In fact, some oenophiles claim they can taste a wine and tell if it’s from a specific region like Burgundy, Bordeaux, or Port. Strict regional wine-naming guidelines have helped winemakers grow their brands and protect their profits.
Not so in the case of Champagne, Switzerland. Since 1657, this village had traditionally produced wine labels with the name “Champagne.” In 2004, Switzerland conceded to stop using the name on wine labels to comply with the EU’s observation of the Treaty of Madrid. As a result, the village’s wine sales dropped from 110,000 to 32,000 that year. The village is now fighting the EU and Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne for the right to regain use of its name on wine labels.
In 2008, US consumers drank 94,736,000 bottles of sparkling wine produced here. If it’s true that more than half of sparkling wine in in this country has been misidentified as Champagne, almost 50 million bottles would have to be relabeled quickly if the US decided to require compliance with the Champagne law. That’s a hefty sum for American wineries to pay — one the online label industry would be glad to help ameliorate. The US, Russia, Vietnam, and a few other countries have not yet signed an agreement to adhere to the Champagne law.
It appears, however, that the US is on the path to compliance. Innovation in production, changes in market awareness, and effects from the recent economic downturn have added up to consumers drinking less expensive sparkling wine more often than Champagne. In fact, in 2009, the market growth of sparkling wine outperformed that of Champagne by 25%. It seems that a surge in popularity would diminish the pressure on producers to label their bottles as Champagne. Ultimately, whether the US signs an agreement or not, it is important that American consumers are aware of the origin of their bubbly and the possible effects their consumption could have on both the French and American wine markets.
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