Tech in labels brings data, security to Champagne industry

Champagne is now connected: Thanks to tracking technology, champagne houses now have tools to better guard against fraud while gaining a new channel to interact with their customers.

Tech in labels brings data, security to Champagne industry
Photo: AFP

Using a combination of unique QR codes and radio-frequency identification (RFID) emitters integrated into the label or the bottleneck foil, each bottle of bubbly can now be tracked to help battle counterfeiting of the luxury product.

“In 2016, we didn't print any connected labels. In 2019 we'll be at one million! The market has doubled each year,” said Arnold Deregnaucourt, head of Billet, a company which has specialised in printing labels for champagne bottles for more than a century.

While a number of firms like Adents, Antares Vision and Tesa Scribos offer food and beverage makers a way to track their goods, Billet hopes that its long history working with the champagne industry will give it an advantage in adapting the technology to its practices.

Laurent Berns, founder of TraceAWine, a technology startup that has acquired Billet, said QR codes are sufficient for smaller champagne houses, but for those with production lines that handle more than 12,000 bottles per hour the RFID emitters are added to speed up the process as they allow for scanning bottles inside boxes.

With a QR code and RFID emitter on each bottle carrying a unique code, which is linked to a unique internet address, one can track the journey each bottle makes from the champagne house to your house. Or not.

“We can detect anomalies like, for example, a bottle which is scanned in Britain but then ends up in Russia,” said Berns. “Our system will alert the client.”

Champagne houses, like other makers of luxury products, don't only worry about outright counterfeiting, but controlling their supply chains to ensure prices aren't undercut in parallel or grey markets.

Foiling counterfeiters

This is something that the owner of the Pierre Peters champagne house, located in the heart of the prestigious Cote de Blancs region, knows about all too well.

“Our champagnes are sold to importers, restaurants, wine shops,” said Rodolphe Peters, who is also cellar master at the house founded in 1854.

“We don't sell to individuals any more except for a few long-time clients, but several were profiting by selling bottles for two or three times higher.”

The connected labels helped him track down those who were reselling their bottles in the United States, putting pressure on the prices he charged there.

The SGV trade association of growers and winemakers in Champagne wants to go further.

After six years of research and development, it began offering in 2017 a capsule integrating a QR code that not only tracks the bottle, but acts as a guarantee of the authenticity of the champagne inside.

A capsule is what winemakers call the protective wrapping or coating at the top of the bottle, which was originally developed to protect corks from rodents and weevils.

While other wine and alcohol makers have used QR codes and RFID emitters, the SVG believes that champagne makers are the first to use them in the capsules.

'A real revolution'

“What is new, and which isn't easy to accomplish, is the integration of the technology in the capsules which are made of complex materials and are manufactured with heat,” said Catherine Chamourin, head of projects at SGV.

“We chose to put the codes on the capsules rather than the labels or the bottle as the capsules are destroyed when opening the bottle and can't be reused,” she added.

This makes them much like the excise tax labels that some countries affix onto the top of alcohol bottles, which makes it impossible for them to be used again, and provides an indication that the product is genuine and hasn't been tampered with.

French wine and champagne bottles sold domestically already carry an excise tax label on the capsule, which consumers appreciate as it contains information whether the winery uses its own grapes or buys them from others.

Eric Lamaille, who heads up the capsule project at SGV, said winemakers are very enthusiastic about the capsules with integrated QR codes and several million have already been sold.

He called it “a real revolution”.

The revolution is the not just in the tracking, but in connecting producers and consumers.

While both appreciate that the information about the product's journey ensures it is genuine, when the customer scans the QR code on their smartphone it is an opportunity for both to learn more about the other.

Reims-based champagne house Krug has been doing this with its ID bottles for the past six years. A code on the back label is the key to a treasure chest of information.

“The history of the house and the bottle, the composition of the champagne, the land parcels used, how long it spent in the cellar, serving suggestions and food pairing tips and even advice on what music to listen to,” said the house's director, Olivier Krug.

“Digital even allows our connoisseurs to meet,” he added.

With luxury brands eager to bolster the experience around their products, learning who their customers are and drawing them into their websites is an important development that will have marketing managers lifting their glasses in celebration.

READ ALSO: Champagne: Ten fascinating facts about France's prized bubbly 

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French Champagne makers threaten boycott of Russia over ‘sparkling wine’ label

Russian elites could soon find themselves without their favourite French bubbles if Moet Hennessy makes good on a threat to halt champagne supplies following a new law signed by President Vladimir Putin.

French Champagne makers threaten boycott of Russia over 'sparkling wine' label
Russian lawmakers adopted legislation saying the word "champagne" can only be applied to wine produced in Russia. Photo: Alexander NEMENOV / AFP.

Moet Hennessy’s Russia office warned local partners it was suspending supplies after Russian lawmakers adopted legislation stipulating that the word “champagne” can only be applied to wine produced in Russia, while the world-famous tipple from France’s Champagne region should be called “sparkling wine”.

Leonid Rafailov, general director of AST, a top liquor distributor which works with a number of brands including Moet Hennessy, said on Saturday his firm had received a letter from the French company notifying it of the suspension.

“I confirm that such a letter exists, and it is justified,” Rafailov told AFP.

He said that in accordance with the legislation – signed off on by Putin on Friday – the company would have to undergo new registration procedures, among other requirements.

Sebastien Vilmot, Moet Hennessy managing director in Russia, declined to speak to AFP.

But in a statement released through Rafailov, Vilmot called the suspension a “temporary” measure before a solution could be found.

Moet Hennessy is part of French luxury goods group LVMH and known for such brands as Moet & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot and Dom Perignon.

The French are fiercely protective of the term “champagne”, and it can only be made in the French region of the same name.

A copy of Moet Hennessy’s letter was first published on social media on Friday by a representative of a Moscow-based liquor importer and distributor.

Drinks market expert Vadim Drobiz suggested the legislation was open to interpretation but added that Moet Hennessy’s share of the Russian market was relatively small and well-heeled clients could find a replacement.

“If there is no Moet, there won’t be a state coup and Russian elites will not commit suicide,” Drobiz quipped.

But wine consultant Anna Chernyshova questioned the purpose of the amendments. “My phone has been ringing off the hook,” she said. “Me and my clients are thinking what to do next.”

Chernyshova, who helps people build wine collections, said she was not sure why the Russian parliament had passed such a law. “How will they walk back on it?” she told AFP. “So many officials love this champagne.”

Social media was abuzz with jokes, with wits making fun of the latest piece of Russian legislation. “Now it’s necessary to ban Scots and Americans from using the word “whisky”, joked restaurateur Sergei Mironov.

Popular singer Vasya Oblomov said Russian lawmakers could now adopt similar legislation regulating the use of the name “Mercedes” and even place names.

“I thought it was a joke,” wrote Putin’s self-exiled critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky. “I was wrong.”