‘Champagne war’ leaves Russian oligarchs facing shortage of French bubbly

Russian oligarchs are facing a shortage of champagne, after French producers temporarily cut off supplies to the country over a new law that will force them to label their drinks as “sparkling wine”. 

Last week, President Vladimir Putin signed off on a law stating that only wine produced in Russia can be labelled as “champagne”, while foreign makers would have to rebrand their luxury wares.

Neither the president nor parliament explained why Russia needed such a law. 

The “champagne” designation is protected by strict standards in France, which state that the wine must originate from a small area in the Champagne region, be made with approved grape varieties and mature for a minimum of 15 months.

Moet Hennessy, which produces drinks such as Moet & Chandon, Dom Perignon and Veuve Clicquot, told partners in Russia that it would have to halt distribution.

In a letter to local businesses, Moet Hennesy, part of the French luxury goods group LVMH, said stocks of its champagnes would therefore be at an “extremely low level”, exacerbated by a wider drop in imports over 2021.

Later, the company told Bloomberg that it would add a “sparkling wine” mention on the back label of their bottles, and resume deliveries once these changes were made.

Olga Sokolova, a sales director at Vinicom, which imports and distributes foreign wine in Russia, denounced the situation as absurd as she shared the letter from Moet Hennessy on social media.

“This seems like it’s fake, but it’s true,” she said. “From today, black is now white, and white is black.”

Bottles of Russian champagne on sale in a shop in Moscow

Credit: Alexander Nemenov/AFP via Getty Images

Others online were equally damning of the law change, with Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the exiled oligarch and Kremlin foe, saying he “thought the whole champagne thing was a joke”.

Restaurant owner Sergei Mironov, meanwhile, quipped that Moscow’s next step would be to ban Scots from using the word “whisky”.

Other experts questioned whether Russia had the legal jurisdiction to force foreign products to rebrand.

Vadim Drobiz, director of the Centre for the Study of Federal and Regional Alcohol Markets, told the business newspaper RBK that about half of the 330 million litres of still and sparkling wine imported to Russia every year could be affected.

The new law came as Mr Putin signed a decree stating that the “Westernisation” of Russian culture was one of the primary security threats to the country.

Russia banned the import of Western cheeses, meats and other food products in 2014 as a response to European and US sanctions over the annexation of Crimea. The ban motivated local producers to develop their own versions of European goods, such as “Russian parmesan”.

The USSR created a cheaply produced “Soviet Champagne” in the 1920s as a way of bringing luxury goods to the masses. In recent years, a growing number of winemakers have launched in southern Russia.

French media has dubbed the Russian import spat the “champagne war” or the “bubble war”.

Champagne producers have long been extremely protective over their brands. This week, French wine producers won a legal battle to prevent an ice cream from being called “champagne-flavoured” as it did not taste like the sparkling wine, according to a German court after a years-long battle against supermarket giant Aldi. 

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