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30 Jul 2021
BY André J Maré

Champagne: is Russia really Putin the boot in?

A comment posted on social media last week in South Africa said, “It is only a Coup when it originates from the Coup d'état region in France. Otherwise it is just sparkling insurrection”.

For those who are not aware, South Africa has had a few disruptive weeks with violent protests and looting. In-between the angst and sadness, there was still time for a dig at Geographical Indications (“GIs”). Confusingly and somewhat ironically, there are other names and acronyms involved in this area: Protected Designations of Origin (“PDOs”) and Protected Geographical Indications (“PGIs”), but for the sake of convenience, we’ll simply use the term GIs.

The Russians make their move

President Vladimir Putin recently signed a law that has the effect of reserving use of the Russian word for “champagne” for Russian makers of sparkling wine. We’re well aware that the extremely refined people who read our IP articles like to read their Tolstoy and Dostoevsky in the language in which it was written, but for the benefit of the odd reader who isn’t fluent in Russian, the Russian word for champagne is “shampanskoye”. 

We were also surprised to hear that there is a sparkling wine industry in Russia. But it turns out that this industry has been around since the 1930s. So, what’s Russian sparkling wine like? Well, in one article, it’s described as “cheap and low-quality”, one whose “production method is different from the one used in France.” Some bottles sell for as little as 270 roubles (roughly USD3.60 at the time of writing). Never one to shirk our research obligations, we asked the local merchant to test this opinion but alas, no shampanskoye in stock.

You won’t be surprised to hear that the new Russian law has gone down very badly in France. That’s because the French take GIs very seriously indeed, they have quite a collection of them, and the one they take more seriously than any other is champagne. In fact, it’s probably safe to say that champagne is the best-known GI in the world.

There have been mutterings by the French about this being protectionist legislation that’s aimed at favouring the Russian sparkling wine industry, which is located in the south of the country, including recently-annexed Crimea. It’s been pointed out that Russia pulled a similar stunt in order to promote its local cheese production: cheese and then champagne, is it any surprise that the French are getting jittery?

At least one major champagne producer has threatened to stop exporting to Russia. There’s talk of a WTO dispute, one that will see the EU backing France. A French minister had this to say: “Be there no doubt. We will support without fail our producers and French excellence. Long live French champagne.”

It does seem that over the past few weeks the temperature has cooled somewhat. The Russians have sought to explain their actions, saying that French companies can still have the name champagne in Latin characters on their product, but they must also use the Cyrillic term for sparkling wine – effectively now calling their products ”Champagne Sparkling Wine”. The French also seem to have toned it down, perhaps recognising that there is a real taste for champagne in Russia, which is now the 15th largest market for the drink.

To sum up the situation is as follows:

  • The Russian word for champagne is shampanskoye.
  • Only Russians can use this word, foreigners can’t.
  • French companies can still have the name champagne in Latin characters on their product but they must also use the Cyrillic term for sparkling wine.

It’s been suggested by one commentator that this will make little difference because most Russian consumers can’t read Latin characters, and all they will look for is the word shampanskoye in Cyrillic, and they won’t find that on French champagne.

GIs in the news

It’s extraordinary how newsworthy GIs have become – we certainly find ourselves writing about them far more often than we ever expected. But perhaps it should be no surprise, GIs are critically important and, as we have mentioned in previous articles, they play an increasingly important role in trade talks and agreements.

In this case, there is no way of knowing whether the new law was intended to provoke France or even the west in general, or whether it was simply a protectionist measure aimed at helping local wine makers. But whatever the motivation, it certainly created a stir.

South Africa’s best-known GI is of course Rooibos. That name has itself been in the news of late, having recently secured protection in the EU as a PDO, the first African name to do so.


André J Maré

IP | Executive

amare@ENSafrica.com

+27 82 440 151717