This is a guest post by Nicolas Boring who has previously written for the blog on a variety of topics including FALQs: Freedom of Speech in France, How Sunday Came to be a Day of Rest in France, Napoleon Bonaparte and Mining Rights in France, French Law – Global Legal Collection Highlights, and co-collaborated on the post, Does the Haitian Criminal Code Outlaw Making Zombies.
Champagne wine has long had a reputation for sophistication and high quality, and has come to be considered by many as the celebratory drink par excellence. Given its special image, it is no wonder that many wine producers outside of the actual French region of Champagne have sold wines labelled as Champagne. And, likewise, it is no wonder that the wine producers of the region of Champagne have sought to protect their collective “brand name.”
French law is notoriously protective of its geographical indications – not just for Champagne but for many other regional products as well. According to the Institut National de l’Origine et de la Qualité (National Institute of Origin and Quality, known under its old acronym I.N.A.O., ), 49 dairy products (mostly cheeses) benefit from an Appelation d’origine controlee (A.O.C., Controlled Designation of Origin), as do 42 other agricultural products (fruits, vegetables, olive oils…) and 364 wines and liquors. Various provisions of the Code rural et de la pêche maritime (Rural and Maritime Fishing Code), Code de la consommation (Consumer Code), and Code de la propriété intellectuelle (Intellectual Property Code) regulate and protect the use of these geographic indications. Article L115-16 of the Code de la consommation, for example, punishes the fraudulent use of a controlled designation of origin with up to two years of jail time and 300,000 Euros (approximately US$332,000).
Beyond French law, specific geographical indications are protected by European law and by international treaties. One of the more recent developments was the 2006 Agreement between the United States and the European Community on Trade in Wine, which limited the use of the term “Champagne” and some other semi-generic names in the United States. The agreement provides that American producers who were using the term “Champagne” when the agreement was signed were grandfathered in, which is why you still see some “Champagne” wines from California. Apart from these exceptions, only Champagne from the official French region of Champagne (and made according to specific rules) can claim that term.
While they certainly were not the only ones interested and active in protecting their geographical brand name, Champagne producers have certainly been at the forefront of that fight for a long time.
Their main trade association, the Comité interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne (Inter-professional Committee for Champagne Wine) was founded in 1941 and has been very active since. Even before that, Champagne producers had formed different organizations such as the 1882 foundation of the Syndicat du commerce des vins de Champagne (Champagne Wines Trading Union). Going back even further, various Champagne winemakers often got together on an ad hoc basis to defend their collective interests, such as the group that successfully got the Cour de cassation (roughly speaking, the French equivalent of the Supreme Court) to prohibit the use of the name “Champagne” as a generic term for sparkling wine in 1845.
So the next time you look at the label on a bottle of French Champagne, you will know that the A.O.C. designation was the result of over a century and a half of legal evolution driven by generations of winemakers.