Champagne: Four founding myths of a global icon

A French region once better known for its wool than for its festive, bubbly drink, Joonas Rokka, Professor of Marketing at EM Lyon, dives into the history of champagne and the four myths that have surrounded the iconic beverage.

Champagne: Four founding myths of a global icon
(Photo by JOEL SAGET / AFP)

What made a simple wine grown in a fairly mediocre wine-growing region one of the most prominent and enchanting icons in the world today? How did champagne, against all expectations, acquire such a prestige, becoming the ultimate sign of celebrations world-wide? No wedding, business deal, sporting event or art exhibition would be complete without it. Champagne’s success cannot be explained by its intriguing bubbles alone, so how did it become the ultimate symbol of celebration worldwide?

Looking for answers, I decided to examine the past 250 years of champagne marketing to discover what it can teach us about the ever-changing image of champagne and its place in consumer culture.

Champagne’s undying fame is, in fact, the product of four founding myths. These have shaped its identity and the images now associated with its consumption. The marvellous history demonstrates the power of collective myth-making in knitting and reknitting brands into the cultural fabric of society.

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

The origin myth

Initially, the Champagne region of France was better known for its wool than its wine. The most northern wine-growing region in France, it was not considered appropriate for producing high-quality wines. In fact, local wines were often given as a promotional gift to customers of the wool trade.

It was the Benedictine monks who began to improve the quality of wines from the Champagne region, selling them to fund their monasteries. Contrary to popular belief, however, the monks did not “invent” champagne. It wasn’t until much later that Pierre “Dom” Pérignon (1635–1713), head of a monastery in Reims, was integrated into the origin myth as part of a deliberate marketing strategy to highlight notions of heritage, authenticity and tradition associated with champagne, and secure its place in an increasingly competitive market.

So who invented champagne? No one, in fact, as the formation of bubbles is natural for all wines. It really began to flourish when wool producers, receiving more and more orders for champagne, saw an opportunity to leave the wool industry for what appeared to be a more promising and profitable business. But the myth of a magic elixir, invented by holy men, has endured.

The myth of opulence

The second myth that grew up around champagne is that of opulence. The fact that champagne is seen and marketed as a luxury product is the result of a happy coincidence, dating all the way back to the year 496.

Clovis, king of the Franks, was baptized into the Christian faith in Reims, the home of champagne. From that time on, tradition dictated that all French kings be crowned in Reims, and coronations were accompanied by sumptuous feasts, where the local wine, champagne, flowed freely. This tradition explains why champagne is known as a festive drink, sipped by those of privilege.

This image was cemented when, at the age of sixteen, Louis XIV, the most opulent monarch of all, first tasted champagne in the magnificent cathedral of Reims. The Sun King was the one would associate champagne with his other obsessions: fashion, prestige and luxury.

The industry caught another lucky break when Louis XV authorized the transport of champagne (and only champagne) in glass bottles rather than wooden barrels. This made all the difference for producers, because the wood let out the gas that gave champagne its bubbles, making it go flat.

This new law also contributed to the development of champagne’s carefully designed packaging, one of the first instances of modern marketing. Labels featured well-known figures such as Marie-Antoinette and Jeanne d’Arc, as well as victorious military officers, nobles, artists, and other celebrities. Vendors quickly understood the value of graphic design to increase their brands’ renown and arouse desire in their expanding and increasingly wealthy client base.

The national myth

In 1789, the French revolution and its guillotine severed the connection between champagne and monarchs and aristocrats. Yet the revolution brought on the third, and perhaps most powerful, myth-making cycle, directly associating champagne with the “soul” and character of the new French Republic.

Champagne had already gained enough renown to be seen as a national symbol, a worthy collective success. Champagne had become not only “the shining reflection of our nation”, according to the famous words of Voltaire, but also the “most glorious expression” of French civilization.

It was under the French Empire that champagne really came into its own. Napoleon used the wine to help him create a new bourgeois society that was both industrious and loyal.

Jean-Rémy Moët established Moët in the United States, attracting a new set of clients, including President George Washington himself. And when the Russian army routed Napoleon and reached the city of Reims, the enterprising Clicquot “Widow” opened her champagne cellars to the invaders in the hope of conquering the Russian market.

These strategies proved successful. Following the fall of the French Empire in 1814, the dawn of the industrial revolution was the start of a veritable golden age for champagne. As rail lines spread outward, champagne could be transported further, in greater quantities and to new markets. Innovative equipment enabled more efficient production and improved quality, both in terms of aesthetics and taste. It quickly became a symbol of France in the eyes of the world.

This period was also marked by an increase in the production of imitation champagne in other countries. The Champagne region’s signature sparkling wine was granted international recognition in the 1930s, protected by the appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) certification.

The myth of modernity

From the early 1900s, champagne advertising took on modern symbolism. During the Belle Époque, ads for champagne often featured modern marvels that dazzled the growing middle class – steamships, hot-air balloons, automobiles, planes and more.

It is no coincidence that champagne was served at the 1889 Paris Universal Exhibition, when the Eiffel Tower was unveiled to the world. It became ubiquitous at ship launches and on transatlantic voyages – including on the Titanic – and at the closing of business deals. It was the subject of the world’s first film advertisement, and became a symbol of modernity at a time when France was trying to forget the horrors of WWI and turn towards a promising new age.

When competition came from Italian prosecco and Spanish cava sparkling wines, advertising for champagne adapted, emphasizing its history and heritage, endowing it with unique prestige to distinguish it from its lesser rivals. At this time, Moët created the Dom Pérignon “myth” to promote his premium brand.

In contemporary times, James Bond, Audrey Hepburn and, more recently, Beyoncé and her husband Jay Z have been associated with the myths and history surrounding champagne. This is the ultimate proof of its continued relevance and iconic attraction in global markets. Through collective myth-making, champagne has not only managed to take advantage of favourable social and cultural trends, but also to navigate deep cultural contradictions and continue to sparkle in our collective imagination.

This article was written by Joonas Rokka, Professor of Marketing at EM Lyon and it was first published in The Conversation. It was translated from the French by Alice Heathwood for Fast for Word.

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Bio, artisan and red label: What do French food and drink labels really mean?

From home-made to made in France, organic to artisan, AOP to Red Label - French food and drink products have a bewildering array of different labels and quality marks - here's what they all mean.

Bio, artisan and red label: What do French food and drink labels really mean?

In France, there are many different types of étiquette to be aware of when purchasing food, drink or other products. However, this étiquette does not have to do with behaviour – rather it is the French word for label or sticker that might designate certain properties about an item being purchased.

Here are some that you might run into while shopping in France:

Wines and other beverages

French wine often has several different designations and labels that you might come across. In France, wine is labelled based on region rather than grape.

Cru – the word “cru” – translated as ‘growth’ – on a wine label signifies that it was grown in high-quality vineyard or growing site, and provides further proof to where the wine was produced. 

Vin Bio – this designates a product, and in this case, wine as being organic. You will also find a bio (pronounced bee-yo) section of fruit and veg in most French supermarkets as well as plenty of other products with a bio label. Most towns and communes regularly host a marché bio –  a market where all the products on sale are organic.

Here is an example of what the label looks like:

Photo Credit: Economie.Gouv.Fr

To be certified as bio, producers must follow a set of EU specifications around how products are grown, which limit the use of chemicals such as fertilisers, pesticides and weedkillers. The bio brand is a protected mark.

Vin natural – While bio refers to how the grapes are grown, ‘natural wines’ refers to the process of turning the grapes into wine.  

This is more vague than organic as there isn’t an agreed set of standards for what constitutes a ‘natural wine’. Producers label their bottles vin méthode nature (natural wine method) but you’ll also frequently see and hear vin naturel or vin nature to describe these products. In general, it means a wine that has no additives used during the wine-making process and no or few added sulphites, which can mean that natural wines taste different.

Not all organic wines are natural and not all natural wines are made with organic grapes, although the two tend to go together.

Vin biodynamique – Growers who embrace the biodynamic method go a step further and as well as cutting out chemicals they also plant and harvest their crop according to the lunar calendar.

Biodynamic isn’t a protected mark and a biodynamic wine isn’t necessarily organic or natural, but vine growers who go to the trouble of following the lunar calendar are generally pretty committed to producing their product in a more natural way. 

Champagne (capital C) – The sparkling wine known as Champagne can only be produced in the French Champagne region, otherwise it’s just sparkling wine. In fact, the Champagne industry has a skilled team of lawyers tasked with insuring that the name “Champagne” is not being used inappropriately or incorrectly. Champagne is a famous example of the French AOC (more on this below).

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

Geographic designations and traditional techniques

In France, there are three different labels that determine where a product comes from and whether it was made according to certain traditional standards.

L’Appellation Contrôlée (AOC) – This designation can either indicate that a product comes from a specific geographical area or that it was produced following a certain traditional technique. Under French law, it is illegal to manufacture and sell a product under one of the AOC-controlled indications if it does not comply with the criteria of that AOC. In order to make them recognisable, all AOC products carry a seal, with a number as well as the name of the certifying body.

You can see an example of the label below:

Photo Credit:

The colour of the seal indicates the product classification: green for field products and red for dairy products.

It is worth keeping in mind that simply being considered an AOC product does not necessarily mean that the quality will be better than a non-AOC product, as it is focused on either geographical location or technique used when cultivating the product. The AOC designation is typically applied to certain wines and cheeses, though it can be extended to other products too.

READ MORE: What does the AOP/AOC label on French food and wine mean – and are these products better?

AOP (Appellation d’Origine Protégée) – the European Union operates a similar geographical protection system that recognises products that are the “result of a unique combination of human and environmental factors that are characteristic of a given territory”.

The two labels are pretty much the same, but the AOC is French and older, while the AOP is recognised on a European level. 

In most cases, in order to apply for AOP designation, the product must already have an AOC recognition at the national level and then it is later registered with the European Commission. 

For France, the AOP concerns certain dairy products – specifically, 45 cheeses, 3 butters, and 2 creams – other foods like “Grenoble walnuts” are also listed as AOPs.

As for non French products, Gorgonzola cheese is an example of an Italian AOP.

La Spécialité Traditionnelle Garantie (STG) – In English this would be referred to as the “Traditional Speciality Guarantee”. This is another European-wide label. It attests that a food product has been manufactured according to a recipe considered traditional.

The first French STG was “Bouchot mussels” which are collected using a traditional aquaculture technique. 

Quality labels

Label rouge – This French label allows you to identify superior quality products. It has been in existence for over 60 years – according to the French ministry of economy, Landes chicken was the first food product to be awarded the label. Label rouge can be applied to food products as well as non-food agricultural products, such as Christmas trees or flowers.

For example, a Christmas tree might qualify for the Label rouge if it is: from the Nordmann or Spruce species, free from parasites (fungi and insects); fitting the proper aesthetic criteria for shape, colour, symmetry and density; and fresh – meaning cut down after November 21st.

Nutri-score – this five letter label designates food products based on their nutritional value. This is regulated by public health authorities. The logo is on packaging and ranges from A (dark green, most nutritious) to E (dark orange, least nutritious).

Artisanale – this is a protected “appellation” (title) that was created in 1998, and it regulates ‘craft’ products according to French law – the most common usages are for bakeries and breweries but it’s used for a wide range of products. 

People running the business must be able to prove a certain relevant education and qualification level and register with the trade organisation or guild for their craft.

For example, bakery owners must register the boulangerie with the Chambre des Métiers et de l’Artisanat and take a preparatory course.

Typically, artisan producers promise to use non-processed materials and they must also follow certain quality rules. For example, bread sold in these artisan boulangeries cannot have been frozen.

French bread and pastry designations

When buying your baguette at the boulangerie, there are some differences to be aware of.

Baguette Tradition – As suggested by the name, this designation means that the baguette was made using the traditional ingredients – only flour, yeast, salt and water. These were decided upon as part of the French government’s ‘bread decree’ of 1993. It also indicates that the baguette is free of any additives or preservatives. 

Baguette – A regular baguette could contain extra ingredients like grains, cereals or nuts – or any chemical additives or preservatives.

Boulanger de France – This label is relatively new in France – it was launched in 2020 in order to help differentiate artisinal bakeries from industrial ones. In order to obtain the label, then the bakery must respect certain quality regulations (eg. salt dosage used in bread, and specific recipes and manufacturing methods). Also, boulangers who apply for this label also commit themselves to favouring seasonal products.

Other French labels you might come across

Fait maison – this means ‘home made’ in French, and the logo for this type of dish looks like a little house.

You might see this label when at a restaurant or when buying food. In essence, it means that the dish was cooked on the spot. It also means that the dish was made with unprocessed ingredients, and that the only processed ingredients are those listed HERE.

Made in France (or Fabriqué en France) – It may be a bit misleading, but the label “Made in France” does not mean that 100 percent of the manufacturing steps for the product were carried out in France, but it signifies that a significant part were indeed done in France. This label is applied primarily to “consumer and capital goods”, but it can also be attributed to certain agricultural, food and cosmetic products, according to the French ministry of economy.

In order to qualify for this label, a part of the French customs body (Direction générale de la concurrence, de la consommation et de la répression des fraudes or DGCCRF) must authorise the label. If a product simply contains colours associated with France or a French flag, that does not necessarily mean it was entirely produced in France.

The penalties for falsely using a “Made in France” label, which are laid out in the French consumer code (article L. 132-2) are up to two years imprisonment and a fine of up to €300,000, which may be increased, depending on whether there were benefits derived from the offence.

Origine France Garantie – This label is awarded by the “Pro France association” to both  food and non-food products that can prove to have had the majority of manufacturing operations (at least 50 percent of its per unit cost) carried out in France and that the parts of the product that constitute its ‘essential characteristics’ were manufactured and produced in France.

Terre textile – This label attests that at least 75 percent of the textile product’s manufacturing was carried out in the French geographical area that it references – for example the label would indicate a part of France, like Alsace, and then below it would say “Terre textile”.