‘The price of glory’ – Meet the Champagne industry lawyers charged with protecting the brand name

Makers of perfumes, sodas or even condoms who hope to add fizz to their products by labelling them 'Champagne' quickly find out that it's risky to take the name of the world's most famous bubbly in vain.

'The price of glory' - Meet the Champagne industry lawyers charged with protecting the brand name
Photo: Fred Dufour/AFP

The powerful CIVC association, which groups the famed eastern French region’s 16,200 growers and 360 brands, tracks anyone in the world who hijacks the Champagne name.

According to laws in France, the EU and elsewhere, the label can only be used for sparkling wine produced in their precisely defined part of the country.

“It’s the price of glory,” said Roxane de Varine-Bohan, one of five lawyers at the Interprofessional Committee of Champagne Wine (CIVC) looking after brand protection.

The body has hunted down countless samples of products using the Champagne name over the decades.

Charles Goemaere, CEO of the Interprofessional Committee of Champagne Wine (CIVC). Photo by FRANCOIS NASCIMBENI / AFP

Helped by the French government, and increasingly by foreign authorities, the association handles about 1,000 cases in 80 countries every year.

One high-profile dispute erupted in June when Russia turned the tables on France by passing a law that says only Russian bubbly can be called “Champagne”, while French Champagne has to be labelled “sparkling wine”.

Three French cabinet ministers have since written to their Russian counterparts demanding a suspension of the new law, said CIVC boss Charles Goemaere, adding he hoped for a response sometime in September.

Also in June, customs services in the northern French port of Le Havre seized 750 bottles of a cola drink labelled “Couronne Fruit Champagne” that had been ordered from Haiti by a Parisian restaurant.

The CIVC is planning to bring a civil suit against the drink’s distributor while trying to locate its producer.

“Our aim is not to win damages, but to ban the use of the Champagne name for this product that is sold in the French Caribbean and in South America,” Varine-Bohan said.

Around 120 nations officially recognise the Champagne name as copyrighted including China “which protects it very well”, said Goemaere.

Others still won’t play ball, he said, including the United States, Russia, Belarus and Haiti.

“But we’ll get there,” he added.

The recognition of Champagne as a protected designation of origin dates back to 1936.

But even as long ago as 1843, a group of Champagne growers won a court order preventing Touraine growers in central France from using the label.

Most of the hunt for offenders goes on discreetly, but occasionally there are high-profile cases such as when the Yves Saint Laurent fashion group had to change the name of its “Champagne” perfume.

“We accomplish painstaking work against the hijacking of our name. Nothing can stop us,” Varine-Bohan said.

Not even a village in Switzerland called Champagne that claimed it should be allowed to market its wines using its own name – the CIVC filed a lawsuit and obtained, thanks to Swiss-EU accords, a ban on the Swiss Champagne challenge.

British sweets and a German cola drink, both called champagne, also never stood a chance against the CICV’s wrath.

The association relies on a network established by Champagne houses in 10 countries as well as 70 law firms across the world for its intelligence.

But the bulk of tip-offs comes from champagne drinkers who won’t stand for their favourite tipple’s name being misappropriated.

They account for some 80 percent of cases, said Goemaere.

As long as champagne enjoys worldwide fame, “there’s money to be made” from stealing its name, he sighed.

“Our work is never done.”

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Why France’s Champagne lawyers are feared across the world

Ordering the destruction of 2,000 cans of American beer is just the latest example of the work of the feared French Champagne industry lawyers - who take the protection of France's most famous sparking wine extremely seriously.

Why France's Champagne lawyers are feared across the world

In late April, Belgian customs authorities, with the help of the French Comité interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne, ordered that 2,352 cans of Miller high life beer be destroyed when they entered the port of Antwerp. The reason? Miller high life beer cans all carry an inscription of their nickname “The champagne of beers”, and to the Comité Champagne, this qualifies as an infringement on their trademark.

Even though few would mistake Miller high life beer for the carefully crafted AOC (appellation origine controllée) wine, the Champagne industry’s legal team takes any misuse of the name seriously and they have a history of doing so. 

Listen to the team at The Local discuss the ‘Champagne wars’ in this week’s episode of the Talking France podcast. Download it here or listen on the link below

“It’s the price of glory,” Roxane de Varine-Bohan, one of five lawyers at the CIVC looking after brand protection told AFP in 2021.

READ MORE: Champagne: Four founding myths of a global icon

The CIVC has been in existence since 1941, but even before its creation, the Champagne industry still took maintaining their product’s good name very seriously.

In 1891, protection for the Champagne name and wine was first codified in the Madrid Agreement Concerning the International Registration of Marks (the Treaty of Madrid) which made it so trademarks would be recognised by other nations who signed and ratified the treaty.

In 1919, recognising the Champagne trademark was even written into the Treaty of Versailles – which also dealt with some weightier topics such as thrashing out the conditions to end World War I including war reparations. 

When France came up with its designation to protect special products with a label to denote its unique geographic and production heritage, the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC), in 1935, Champagne was quickly recognised, just one year later. This meant that an AOC Champagne must meet certain standards, from the geographic location, type of grape used, cultivation techniques employed and more, to gain the label.

So when the CIVC came about, it carried on this legacy of ensuring that the Champagne name was only used to products that fit those requirements, particularly via lawsuits. 

Their work doesn’t just concern beverages, anyone using the name Champagne to market their product – maybe to signify that it’s a high-class item or even just something of similar colour – can become a target.

In 1993, the CIVC took Yves Saint Laurent to court over its perfume “Champagne de Yves Saint Laurent”, ultimately winning the lawsuit and forcing the company to halt its sales and pay compensation, and in 2014, the industry’s lawyers sued an Australian wine critic and educator, ‘Champagne Jane’, asking that she take down her social media accounts bearing the title.

Most recently, 35,000 bottles of a Haitian soda, ‘Courrone Fruit Champagne’, were destroyed by EU customs agents in Le Havre, France for violating the copyright.

And as of 2023, thanks to the efforts of the Comité Champagne, the appellation is recognised and protected in over 121 countries.

However, the United States is one of the few places where industry lawyers have a slightly shorter reach. The United States never signed the Treaty of Versailles, and instead, it recognises the word ‘champagne’ (small C), as a generic term not fit for trademark. 

For many decades, California wine producers had made their own sparkling wines with the title of ‘champagne’, and after these years of disagreement, in 2006, the EU and the US finally reached an agreement with the WTO regarding how that title should be treated moving forward. Essentially, the agreement stated that wines produced before 2006 could keep the title, but it could not be awarded to any post-2006.

According to Forbes, “nearly 80 million bottles of American sparkling wine are produced and labelled with the word champagne every year”.

A representative from the CIVC, Philippe Wibrotte, told the American news site in 2018 that they had been “forced to sign this agreement”.

READ MORE: ‘The price of glory’ – Meet the Champagne industry lawyers charged with protecting the brand name

“It’s better than it was because previously, there was no protection, but it’s still a problem”, Wibrotte told Forbes.

Still American-headquartered companies, like Apple who in 2013 according to Forbes considered naming their gold iPhone “champagne-coloured”, have abandoned such projects when threatened with legal action from the CIVC.

Using ‘champagne’ in the name also largely limits US products to a domestic market, as other countries will recognise the Champagne protection – as happened with that shipment of Miller beer. The company does not export ‘the champagne of beers’ to the EU, the cans destroyed in Belgium were a private shipment that was destined for a customer in Germany.

The reason the Champagne industry cares so much about its name is simple and laid out on the Appelation’s website: “The ongoing fight against all manner of imitation attempts not only protects the Champagne designation but also consumers by guaranteeing them transparency in terms of the wines they buy and drink”.

So what is Champagne?

To be legally classed as Champagne, the sparkling wine must have been produced in the Champagne wine region of France, while following the strict rules of the appellation, which include specific planting techniques for vines, grape varieties, pressing methods, and manners of fermentation.

As Champagne is a blended wine, several grape varieties can technically be used, but the most common are the white Chardonnay, and the dark-skinned grapes: Pinot Noir and Meunier. You can have either a white or a rosé Champagne, though most are white. Four other grape varieties are permitted with the AOC, but they are increasingly rare.

For rosé Champagne – which is allowed – the same grape varieties are used, but the different colour can be obtained through two methods: macerated or blended.

“Macerated rosé Champagnes are made by leaving the musts with the skin of the grapes to macerate and colour the juice, and so-called “blended” rosé Champagnes are made by adding a still red Champagne wine to base white wines (so before the second fermentation stage)”, as the Appellation explains on its website.