Categorized | Commentary

Champagne: What’s in a Name?

Champagne is sparkling wine. But not all sparkling wine is Champagne. If this is confusing, read on…a beginner’s insider’s guide to Champagne… with a plea from Champagne producer Bruno Paillard

On a recent trip to Reims, I sat down to dinner with Champagne producer Bruno Paillard. His message was loud and clear. “It is an absurdity that the United States continues to protect producers who are abusing the identity of others rather than using honest labeling.”

What he is referring to is the place name ‘Champagne’, which has been an impasse on wine trade talks. Current laws allow U.S. producers continued use of the term under a grandfather law, causing further confusion for American wine consumers.

In 1993, international protection was at the forefront of debate as the International Agreement of Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) recognized wine appellations as valuable intellectual property rights. Under provisions that took effect in 1996, many signatory countries (including the U.S.) have agreed to protect Geographical Indications (GIs).  The Joint Declaration to Protect Wine Place & Origin was signed in 2005, and now has the support of 15 international wine regions.

The Center for Wine Origins has been hard at work to protect these GIs, and I have brought this issue to light last week. This particular problem is a little bit different—it focuses on an interesting loophole that exists in the current agreement, an exception that protects the continued use of geographic indications that were in trademarks and in actual use before TRIPS became effective. In the bilateral trade agreement, the term ‘champagne’ grandfathers’ U.S. producers using the name prior to 2005—the aftermath is evident as we continue to see U.S. producers such as Korbel’s ‘California Champagne’ on supermarket shelves.

But not all California houses capitalize on the grandfather law. Scharffenberger Cellar, for example, has made sparkling wine in Anderson Valley since 1981. Even though the letter of the law would allow them to use the Champagne term, they follow the spirit of the TRIPS agreement. Iron horse in Sebastopol follows this same spirit. They began making a sparkling Blanc de Noirs in 1980. Queries to Iron Horse lead me Laurence Sterling. I asked him if they have used the Champagne term in the past. “It is possible that on our first commercial releases we did indicate the wines were made using ‘Methode Champenoise,’ but I am not aware of any time we would have used the term Champagne instead of sparkling wine.”

On to another continent, I queried Eva Bertran, the Vice President of Freixenet.  Has it ever crossed your mind to use Champagne on your label? The TRIPS agreement protects you under the grandfather law… “Because of our European background it never crossed our mind to use Champagne on our labels in California”, said Eva. Just to give a little background information on why I queried Eva, the Ferrer family is the proprietor of the world’s largest producer of sparkling wine, Freixenet. Many of you are probably familiar with their Spanish Cava, but they also own 250 acres in the Carneros district in Sonoma where they planted vineyards with traditional sparkling grapes of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The winery Gloria Ferrer cultivates 385 acres in Carneros and produces a range of sparkling and still wines. They have every right to use the Champagne term—but they decided not to.

On opposing sides, some U.S. producers hold their ground, stating they have the right to the name because they have been making Champagne [sic] for 120+ years, which predates CIVC and EU existence. Others claim the French waited too long to dispute use of the term. In both cases, many will argue they are both wrong. France has every right to the place name once  wine-producing vineyards hit the map in the 3rd and 5th centuries AD. You cannot separate the name of the place from the wine it’s known for.

For a balanced view, I think it’s important to point out that some countries object to France’s claim, however, as international law continues to expand in relevance, many of these opposing countries are faced with increasing pressure, mainly from France and the EU. With substantial revenues at stake, and with strong cases for and against France’s claims, the debate continues vigorously on the international stage. Of note, Master of Wine Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan points out that,

“Champagne has many challenges, not least of which is trying to protect their name. Korbel has been making sparkling wine since the 1880s.  This makes it older than some champagne brands, such as Champagne Salon which had it’s first commercial champagne in 1927. Additionally, Korbel is a multi-million case brand.  So from a marketing perspective, one can understand why Korbel wants to protect their branding. Having said this, facts are facts.  Champagne is a region, they have established themselves as the quality standard for sparkling wine and they have every right to try to protect their name and the quality they stand for.  And they should.  It’s their name. They have a difficult fight on their hands though because of pricing, cultural views, consumers’ abilities to taste the difference, and lack of retailer/sommelier incentive.”

Worth mentioning, this problem is not Champagne specific. It affects any region in the world. In 2007, for example, Chinese wine producers released many wine products in China under such brand names as “Napa Valley,” “Napa,” and “Valley Napa,” with no association to the grapes grown in the region of Napa.

Debate aside, it is understandable why French Champagne producers and growers are upset. The CIVC regulates strict regulations that mandate location, grape growing, pruning systems, production, harvesting and handling conditions to ensure a quality product. They are protecting a brand, which is what anyone would do if they were in the same position—and just because you can (e.g. use Champagne on a U.S. label based on the grandfather law) does not mean you should.

I rather think of this in similar terms when stealing content from websites. Just because a website does not clearly post a copyright or trademark does not mean you can freely use and distribute the information and claim it as your own.

So laws aside, who, besides the CIVC and the Center for Wine Origins is addressing truthfulness in labeling? The list is large—writers, wine aficionados, chefs and sommeliers. Professionals such as Jancis Robinson, Thomas Keller, Ferran Adrià, Daniel Boulud, José Andrés, Charlie Palmer, Wolfgang Puck, and Michael Mina have joined forces to protect place names by signing a petition. An excerpt of the open letter points out,

“Just as Florida oranges can only come from Florida and Idaho potatoes can only come from the fields of Idaho, wines labeled Napa Valley can only come from America’s renowned Napa Valley and those labeled Champagne can only come from the famous Champagne region in France. There are no substitutes for any of these location-driven products.” ~ Wine and culinary professionals: An Open Letter, Joint Declaration to Protect Wine Place & Origin

But many professionals who have buying power don’t think signing a petition is going far enough. Nearly twenty years ago, Bruno G. Bonnet, Sommelier for Comme Ça Restaurant in Las Vegas decided he had enough—he did not want his guests to be mislead so when a prominent California sparkling wine producer asked him to feature their wines on his list, he asked for a very simple condition: to remove the word “Champagne” from the label. Bonnet reports that to this day the producer has not changed his labels. Bonnet makes a call for action and says, “Signing a petition is the “passive” easy way out. Sorting through mislabeled products takes time and effort…”

Blake Leja, Sommelier for Prosecco Restaurant in Chicago prominently follows suit, stating that California Champagne misleads the consumer. He believes that,

“Champagne comes from Champagne, France.  It is just the same as Cognac. All Cognac is brandy, but not all Brandy is Cognac. Regardless of how a Sparkling wine house or Sparkling wine is produced, unless it comes from the Champagne proper, it should not be allowed to call itself “XYZ Champagne”. The word Champagne speaks to a specific terroir. It speaks to the climate, the soil, the producers, and the grower/producer. Champagne is Champagne for a reason, and I strongly believe it should stay that way.”

Leja does not carry California Champagne on his list, and it is not likely he will in the future. I asked Leja how he deals with customers on the “Champagne vs. Sparkling wine” topic, “I try to keep a neutral but informative opinion on the floor. I explain to the customer the AOP laws and the 2005 ruling—from there I let the customer make their own opinion.”

Jacob Gragg, an Atlanta Sommelier believes the focus of a Sommelier is to create a great experience for the guest, so if they ask for a California Champagne, he suggests one of his sparkling wines from California.

“I love being able to support wines of quality of all different regions, especially when it comes to sparkling wine. At my restaurant, I could offer you sparkling wine options from California such as Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs, Schaffenberger, Roederer Estate’s Brut Rose and L’Ermitage (in magnum). In addition, we have over 25 other Sparkling wine options from Champagne, other regions of France, Tasmania, Austria, Germany, and Italy. We don’t however currently offer any wines labeled as “California Champagne”, and in writing the wine list, we reserve the term “Champagne” exclusively for wines from that region. We list other offerings as “Sparkling Wine” or “Sparkling Rose”, says Gragg.

As for mislabeling, “…there are many wine consumers out there that get a large majority of their basic wine information from the label of the bottles on their local store shelf, and a label reading “California Champagne” can be very misleading and confusing” says Gragg. He  also states that signing a petition is not very effective. “I believe that if you as a Sommelier disagree with the regional misuse of GI’s, then supporting producers and products that uphold your values in labeling is the way to let your voice be heard.”

After querying a heavy hitter, which prefers to remain anonymous, he believes an easy fix would be to focus on the U.S. distributors. “If distributors would simply stop buying inferior products to protect worldwide Geographical Indications (GIs) we would not be having this discussion right now. But taking on distributors who only have an interest in moving product and making money would be near impossible”. This is why focusing on Sommeliers and store wine buyers is important. If they stop buying inferior product, distributors will ultimately sit on product.

Joshua S. Thornton, CMS and independent broker believes Somms can (and should) express their views as advocates for the consumer through their buying dollars. Joshua believes the issue comes down to “respect vs. greed—the greed aspect of trying to wrong every dollar out of a given market vs. the respect due to GIs worldwide.”

In retrospect, many wine professionals are, in essence, the gatekeepers of the wines that show up on our restaurant lists, wine stores and supermarket shelves. Their message to consumers go beyond signing petitions and they challenge consumers to demand truthfulness in labeling. Simonetti-Bryan, MW comments,

“Sommeliers who feel strongly about the issue will not serve “California champagne” on their wine lists.  They may sign a petition or be advocates for GI.  However, it is not the responsibility for retailers and sommeliers to pick up Champagne’s GI banner. Targeted education and marketing campaigns are the solution.  Many of the grande marque champagne houses have some of the largest marketing budgets in the industry.  Therefore, the champagne industry has the financial resources. However, it’s not about throwing money at the problem, it’s about targeted and smart education and marketing campaigns.”

It is clear that Sommeliers play a critical role in communicating and educating consumers in this matter and they are willing to go the extra mile to support truthfulness in labeling.

On a side note, I think many of us get caught up with the romanticism, nobility and royalty associated with Champagne. How can we brand California sparkling wine to harness the same mystical spirit? From a branding perspective, think Coke vs. Pepsi, Levi’s vs. Wranglers, and Microsoft vs. Apple. Every brand has built their empire to represent what they are today. Is one better than the other? They all have strong markets and if you ask for public views, everyone will have an opinion—what tastes better, fits better, operates better. As for one underdog, Apple rivaled Microsoft after years of fighting to become the world’s most valuable tech company.  What is the takeaway? We live in a world where Coke and Pepsi co-exist and they are both wildly popular. California sparkling wine is no different—I believe it should be celebrated as a distinguished pedigree that expresses terroir of the land where it is grown—it is up to our talented U.S. marketers to build a brand that expresses its character and the people behind the products. And it’s up to our consumers to demand truth in labeling and to enjoy refreshing sparklers made from any U.S. location.  Let’s make it happen.

This post was written by:

- who has written 299 posts on Enobytes Wine Online.

Editor and co-founder of Enobytes.com, Pamela is a former restaurant manager, wine buyer, and sommelier with WSET, CMS & Center for Wine Origins certification. She has contributed to or been quoted by various publications, including the Los Angeles Times, Sommelier Journal, Vegetarian Times, VIV Magazine, UC-Berkeley Astrobiology News, The Washington Post, the Associated Press, and USA Today. True to her roots, she seeks varietal and appellation integrity and is always passionate about finding the next great bottle of wine.

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37 Responses to “Champagne: What’s in a Name?”

  1. Ollie says:

    I just drink it and like it! ;) On a serious note, I really hadn’t thought of this issue as intellectual property but I can see your point. I’ll be paying more attention to the labels from now on before buying.

    • I’m glad I shed some light on the subject. Thanks for the comment Ollie.

    • Richard says:

      The analogies given by some French Champagne advocates are misleading. Florida oranges were never called ‘floridas’. Back when most cars in the US were made in Detroit, they weren’t called ‘Detroits’. In common usage in America, if something is made or related to a region, it’s said that it is ‘Chicago-style pizza’ say, or ‘California wines’. No one in California would ever usurp the word ‘wine’ or for that matter ‘California’. You may certainly call your product ‘California-style’ wine if you want. The French could call their sparkling wines ‘Champagne Region Sparkling Wine’ but they don’t because they were they first to produce this product. Afterward, the regional name became the generic name. It’s what happens. This is nothing less than an attempt by French wine producers to protect their product by giving added value to it where no true added value exists. No longer certain of defeating challengers on merit, the French wine makers are now attempting faux laurels. Let them drink California champagne, I say, or have them agree to place the moniker ‘Champagne Sparkling Wine’ on their labels.

  2. Patrick says:

    I think the word “champagne” is appropriate for all sparkling wines and not an offense to the French. I say this for 2 reasons: (a) words change their meaning over time, like the word “xerox” became synonymous with “photocopy.” The meaning of the word Champagne has similarly evolved, and authorities can’t control how that happens. (b) There is no other word in English to describe sparkling wines. The Italians use “prosecco”, the Germans “sekt”, the Spanish “cava.” In English, “sparkling wine” is clumsy and awkward. People say Champagne for all sparkling wine because it’s the easiest thing. I just fail to see the problem here, and I call all sparkling wine Champagne.

    • Donn Rutkoff says:

      Patrick says there is no other word. How about FIZZ? Bubbles? Bubblies? OR, maybe we should call all the Cali. fizz Korbel, since they are so ubiquitous. Just like kleenex and xerox. See if you can wrap yourself around that. I think we ought to respect that village names are how wines are named in Europe and we can come up with other words. Meritage. Mabye it is slow in being accepted, but give it a few generations. WE can call botrytised wines TBA or Noble dessert. There are a lot of ways we can get new common names for wines made in special styles. Potsorts, as per Yarra Yerring for its Port style dessert purply stuff. Tawny is not a place so we can all use it as a type of dessert wine. And maybe the world can call it dessert wines made in the Spanish solera style as Flors. And we can let Gallo continue to sell Hearty Burgundy so they can stand out as the stubborn refusers if they insist on it.

      • Patrick says:

        I like the creative thinking that this response shows. And yes, the example of Meritage is instructive. To replace the US usage of the Champagne name, some winemakers need to set up an alternative and use it, as they did in that case. I hope it happens.

  3. Laurie says:

    Great article as usual, Pamela! Its good to see the sommeliers so passionate about this topic.

    Patrick, if its clumsy and awkward to say sparkling wine, maybe the U.S. should come up with their own name for it?!? I don’t agree we should call all sparkling wine Champagne and I’ll give you an example based on my own experience. I had a friend once try Cook’s Champagne. She hated it and said she would never drink it again. I gave her a bottle of French Champagne and explained the differences. Her opinion changed completely!

    • Patrick says:

      Hi Laurie. I see your point (I think). I have had the same thing happen with Zinfandel. People have told me “I hate Zinfandel,” and then I pour them a good one and they change their minds. Just as there is Good Zin and bad Zin, so there is Good Champagne and Bad Champagne.

      • Laurie says:

        YES! Zinfandel is another great example. And agreed, there is good Champagne and bad (but nothing could be as bad as Cooks!) I guess what I’m trying to point out is most of the U.S. sparkling wine that calls itself Champagne is inferior product, which is a shame because it can give Champagne a bad wrap.

        • Juice says:

          What are you all syaing??? Champagne is not a word for sparkling wine and neither is Prosecco. Sparkling wine in French would be Cremant, Mousseux, or Pettilant and in Italian it would be Frizzante or Spumante. Prosecco is actually the name of the grape (or Glera) that is used in the production of Prosecco the drink. That is why there are other Italian Spumante’s and Frizzante’s out there (Asti, Moscato d’Asti, Franciacorta, Brachetto etc..) that don’t use the name prosecco or champagne for that matter. Champagne refers to a specific place in France and no other sparkling wine should be able to use the name Champagne for their sparklers. If the reverse was happening (i.e. Champagne belonged to the US, and France was using the name Champagne for one of their products) the Americans would have their high priced lawyers all over this. If you are not happy with the term sparkling wine, come up with a better name that is easier to say.

        • Laurie, your reference to inferior products ties nicely with Bruno’s comments below: “To quote a recently departed great newscaster: “Did you ever notice?” that the sparkling wines produced in California that call themselves CHAMPAGNE are NEVER the best bubblies produced in the state??”

          Thanks for the comment!

  4. bruno b says:

    Another great blog Pamela.
    Research + analysis + delivery all contribute to a fantastic piece.

    As far as Patrick & Laurie’s comments…they are both right!

    Patrick points out to the fact that various countries have their own term for sparkling wines ie: Cava, Sekt, Prosecco, Champagne…

    Laurie points to the American resourcefulness and yes new names have been created in the past ie: MERITAGE…

    So what’s wrong with Methode Champenoise?? the term has no quality connotation but simply implies a specific winemaking process. The soil, climate, varietals, length of aging, yeast selection to name a few variables will influence the final organoleptic qualities…

    To quote a recently departed great newscaster: “Did you ever notice?” that the sparkling wines produced in California that call themselves CHAMPAGNE are NEVER the best bubblies produced in the state??
    Cheers.

  5. gdfo says:

    I think it is time to call the wines what they are.
    Let the French keep and use the term champagne.

    Call Ca sparklers what they are Sparkling wines. If they are made in the the way the real Champagnes are made then they can clearly state Methode Champenois on the label. This is just obvious. US winemakers do not have to be Wannabees’ to anyone.

  6. Patrick says:

    I can see that calling a CA sparkling wine by the name Champagne is not exactly accurate. Just like calling a pair of denim pants “Levi’s” is not accurate either. Or calling a pastry that you bought in the Las Vegas Starbucks “Danish” is not accurate either. But folks who insist that “real” or “the best” sparkling wine is produced only in Champagne are also incorrect. Let me ask you folks who defend the purer use of the name: Do you always call the CA stuff “sparkling wine” even in casual situations around the house?

    • “Do you always call the CA stuff “sparkling wine” even in casual situations around the house?”

      I always differentiate between the two as do my sommelier friends–but my casual drinker friends refer to all sparklers as Champagne–well, they usually catch themselves and say, “Oh, sorry, I meant sparkling wine” :) I think Champagne rolls off the tongue a bit easier than the later.

  7. Tia G. says:

    Very interesting read! Thank you!

  8. J.R. Wirth says:

    Champagne is a type of wine, not just a region. Anyone with even one brain cell firing knows this. Dijon is a form of mustard and doesn’t have to come from Dijon. We’re in this problem because U.S. trade negotiators bend over like a cheap harlot when some Eurotrash diplomat with stinky cologne (which doesn’t come from Cologne) want’s to pound U.S. interests. We got nothing from that treaty, absolutely nothing! It doesn’t even preserve Kraft singles as distinctly American cheese.

  9. larry says:

    identifying a sparkling wine made in english speaking countries using the methods of champagne is easy. just identify it as traditional method. use of the phrase methode champenoise is not allowed to describe traditional method sparkling wines in the EU, and really shouldn’t be used in the US. in our case, we make traditional method sparkling wines in michigan,and are changing our labels to remove the phrase method champenoise and replace it with traditional method. i encourage everyone to do the same.
    i do wish we had a simple name/phrase to use instead of sparkling wine. how about sparkus?

    • enobytes says:

      I believe méthode traditionnelle is allowed as well, do you know? Thanks for the comment Larry!

      • larry says:

        yes, local language variations of the phrase are allowed, so it’s similar in spain and italy…. i don’t remember what the phrase is in german…

        • enobytes says:

          I think its also called méthode traditionnelle, but most of the quality sparklers in Germany are made using the Charmat method.

  10. Julene Gouldsberry says:

    Woah this weblog is great i like studying your posts. Keep up the great work! You already know, a lot of people are searching round for this info, you could help them greatly.

  11. Patrick says:

    Wow, that sounds romantic: “Would you like a glass of Traditional Method Sparkling Wine?” I think we already have a simple name for the product, wherever it’s made: Champagne. Maybe the French should call theirs Traditional Champagne and we can call ours California Champagne (as Korbel does now). Language evolution is a messy thing, people. It proceeds in illogical ways, as nouns become verbs (“task”); new words are coined (“podcast”); and old words get new meanings. Until 2 years ago, Twittering was done only by birds. For a long time now, “Champagne” has meant something different in France from what it does in the USA. I don’t see this as a big problem.

  12. Patrick says:

    Some folks have pointed out that the CA sparkling wine that’s labeled champagne is not the best the state produces. This is probably true. But it’s also irrelevant. In my ideal world, the French could call theirs “Original Champagne” and we could call ours Calif. Champagne. But I know this has a snowball’s chance in $#@^.

    • enobytes says:

      “Some folks have pointed out that the CA sparkling wine that’s labeled champagne is not the best the state produces. This is probably true. But it’s also irrelevant.”

      Hey Patrick, I disagree–the point that US producers label their wine Champagne and make inferior products is extremely relevant–this dovetails into Laurie’s comments above. If you drink a crappy US Sparkler called Champagne and you hate it, the odds of you trying it again are probably slim.

      • Patrick says:

        Yes, enobytes, you are correct. People try that CA slop and they get turned off. That is sad. But it also happens with other wines, right? such as chardonnay or zinfandel. The problem is not caused by the labeling of those wines. And it can be solved with education.

  13. Mick Beard says:

    OK, I’m a little late on this discussion, but as a retailer in Portland, Oregon, I thought I’d add comments from this retailer’s point of view. I’m a true believer in “Origins” and will not carry any sparkler that uses the name Champagne unless it comes from Champagne. It is my job to educate customers. It is much more difficult when it comes to Port!

    If a customer says they are looking for a Champagne, I ask whether they were looking for a sparkling wine from Champagne or a sparkling wine from elsewhere. Most customers are not offended by that. Another approach I’ve used is to ask “At about what price point” and this usually indicates whether they are interested in Champagne.

    Oregon labeling laws are very strict for local producers, but I think Méthode Champenoise is allowed, but I’m not who uses it. My friend Steve Corey’s Ecosse Brut says Methode Traditionelle. I am surprised that French operations such as Gruet New Mexico uses Méthode Champenoise.

    Some commentators say that words become common usage so should be allowed. There has been so much abuse of the English language that I hope we can at least put a stop to the misuse of place names. As a Brit, I was surprised when I came to the northwest I could buy Dover Sole and Dungeness Crab. In England – at least when I lived there – these seafoods had to come from specific breeding grounds.

    • Pamela Heiligenthal says:

      Hey Mick, I’m glad that you chimed in to give us a retailer’s perspective! I can certainly appreciate the way you work with customers to find what they are looking for. As for words becoming common language, I agree wholeheartedly. Living with someone from the south, my nit is misusing the word BBQ. We have a lot of friends and acquaintances who swap grilling for BBQ to mean the same—essentially, anything that they cook outside on a grill is BBQ! No, it is not :)

  14. Despina Ahmadi says:

    This was a really excellent post!

  15. I am surprised by the information in this blog I found it to be not only very fascinating but it really also made me reflect. It is difficult now a days to locate appropriate information to ones search, so I’m happy that I found this blog

  16. Denea says:

    An excellent article, beautifully written, wonderful research and I applaud your closing remarks – I believe many sparkling wines are quite excellent, why claim to be something others approve of when you could forge your own way and turn heads by being who (or what) you are.

    Thanks for all of the information and a great read.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] For example, under current law, new producers cannot use the term ‘Champagne’. However, the grandfather exception clause allows continued use of geographic indications that were in trademarks in actual use before TRIPS became effective—which is why you still see Korbel’s California Champagne on American wine shelves.  Are Champagne producers and growers happy with this? Absolutely not. This was evident as I sat down to dinner with Champagne producer Bruno Paillard, a story I will cover later. [...]

  2. [...] {article via Delish with excerpts via author and Los Angeles Times; feature image via enobytes [WJ]} [...]

  3. [...] Amerikaanse producenten van mousserende wijn die hun wijn ‘Champagne’ noemen. Volgens dit artikel vanwege een loophole in de wet. Maar kennelijk is het woord Camembert niet beschermd (aldus dit boek [...]


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