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FOOD & DRINK

‘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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Reader question: Exactly how many different types of cheese are there in France?

One thing everyone can agree on is that France has a lot of cheese - but exactly how many French fromages exist?

Reader question: Exactly how many different types of cheese are there in France?

Question: I often see a quote from Charles de Gaulle talking about ‘246 different types of cheese’, but other articles say there are 600 or even 1,000 different types of cheese and some people say there are just eight types – how many different cheeses are there in France?

A great question on a subject dear to French hearts – cheese.

But it’s one that doesn’t have a simple answer.

Charles de Gaulle did indeed famously say “How can anyone govern a country with 246 different types of cheese”, but even in 1962 when he uttered the exasperated phrase, it was probably an under-estimate.

READ ALSO 7 tips for buying cheese in France

The issue is how you define ‘different’ types of cheese, and unsurprisingly France has a complicated system for designating cheeses.

Let’s start with the eight – there are indeed eight cheese ‘families’ and all of France’s many cheeses can be categorised as one of;

  • Fresh cheese, such as cottage cheese or the soft white fromage blanc
  • Soft ripened cheese, such as Camembert or Brie
  • Soft ripened cheese with a washed rind, such as l’Epoisses or Pont l’Eveque
  • Unpasturised hard cheese such as Reblochon or saint Nectaire
  • Pasturised hard cheese such as Emmental or Comté
  • Blue cheese such as Roquefort 
  • Goat’s cheese
  • Melted or mixed cheese such as Cancaillot

But there are lots of different types of, for example, goat’s cheese.

And here’s where it gets complicated, for two reasons.

The first is that new varieties of cheese are constantly being invented by enterprising cheesemakers (including some which come about by accident, such as le confiné which was created in 2020).

The second is about labelling, geography and protected status.

France operates a system known as Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC or its European equivalent AOP) to designate food products that can only be made in a certain area.

As cheese is an artisan product, quite a lot of different cheese are covered by this – for example a blue sheep’s milk cheese is only Roquefort if it’s been aged in the caves in the village of Roquefort.

There are 63 listed AOC cheeses in France, but many more varieties that don’t have this protected status.

These include generic cheese types such as BabyBel and other cheeses that are foreign in origin but made in France (such as Emmental).

But sometimes there are both AOC and non-AOC versions of a single cheese – a good example of this is Camembert.

AOC Camembert must be made in Normandy by farmers who have to abide by strict rules covering location, milk type and even what their cows eat.

Factory-produced Camembert, however, doesn’t stick to these rules and therefore doesn’t have the AOC label. Is it therefore the same cheese? They’re both called Camembert but the artisan producers of Normandy will tell you – at some length if you let them – that their product is a totally different thing to the mass-produced offering.

There are also examples of local cheeses that are made to essentially the same recipe but have different names depending on where they are produced – sometimes even being on opposite sides of the same Alpine valley is enough to make it two nominally different cheeses.

All of which is to say that guessing is difficult!

Most estimates range from between 600 to 1,600, with cheese experts generally saying there are about 1,000 different varieties. 

So bonne dégustation!

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