Ask Eno: Champagne from California?

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Dear Eno,

Why can sparkling wines from California use “Champagne” on the label?  Isn’t that  French-only term?

– Leslie

 

Dear Leslie,

Good observation! You are right:  Champagne is a legally defined region (and type of wine) in France so use of “Champagne” on a wine’s label outside of that region violates EU law.  Not to mention Champagne fiercely defends their style and history so their legal team is a force to be reckoned with!  Actually even the winemaking term méthode champenoise (“Champagne method”) cannot be used on labels outside of the region anymore – “Traditional Method” replaced it.  

This wasn’t always the case, of course. Many wine laws regarding labels began changing around the end of the 19th century as European winemakers struggled to recover from the devastating vine loss from Phylloxera.  Champagne started the motions for laws to protect their methods and region in the 1890s during this period – which unbeknownst to them was impeccable timing as a large part of the heart of the Champagne region was destroyed during WWI.  

Yet as you have observed, a number of Californian wine producers boldly use the term Champagne on their bubbly wines. The reason they are able to do so without getting slapped with lawsuits is a legal loophole that came about from the The Treaty of Versailles, which had ended WWI.  Though article 275 of the treaty clearly states that only sparkling wines from Champagne could be labeled as such, and the USA signed the treaty along with everyone else, the Senate never officially ratified the treaty.  This probably didn’t seem like a red flag to Champagne at the time because the treaty was mainly concerned with competition from German sparkling production and American Prohibition was about to all but wipe out American wine.  

Fast forward to the 1980s when American wine production is booming, and domestic wines are being labeled with the likes of “Chablis”, “Sherry”, and yes “Champagne.” The simple fact that America technically never agreed to all the terms of the treaty meant that this wasn’t exactly in violation of its terms. French wine regions and the EU Commission took notice and the negotiations lasted 20 years before settling in 2005.  America agreed that American wine producers would no longer be able to use EU protected name places/regions or other semi-generic (e.g. “Red Burgundy”) variations of them on their domestic wine labels.  The exception, however, are producers who were already using these names before the new agreement.  And hence, Pastene can continue to make bulk “Chablis” and André can still make “California Champagne.” You can imagine how thrilled Champagne is about the situation! 

Aubrie Talarico is part of Eno’s team that answers your toughest questions or curiosities about wine, beer, spirits, sake, and cider. Email questions to info@enofinewines.com and read the answers in Eno’s E-newsletter!

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