Food & Beverage

May 1, 2015

Celebrate in russian style

Taste the first and last word in luxury wine. Champagne might just be a single region in Northern France, but it's been making the most renowned sparkling wines for centuries.

Popping the cork and toasting with sparkling, fizzy champagne as the clock strikes midnight on New Year's Eve is a tradition in many households around the world. Why is champagne used to mark special occasions and what's its significance?

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The bubbly, light-colored wine has historically been associated with luxury and the parties of the royal courts and aristocracy of Europe.

Legal status

Sovetskoye Shampanskoye is a generic brand of sparkling wine produced in the Soviet Union and successor states. It was produced for many years as a state-run initiative. Typically the wine is made from a blend of Aligoté and Chardonnay grapes. After the Soviet Union dissolved, private corporations in Belarus, Russia, Moldova, and Ukraine purchased the rights to use "Soviet Champagne" as a brand name and began manufacturing once again. "Soviet Champagne" is still being produced today by those private companies, using the original generic title as a brand name.

In Latvia the Supreme Court has ruled that Latvijas Balzams, a local producer of Sovetskoye Shampanskoye, has sole right to use the trademark in Latvia. In other former Soviet republics, the use of the brand is not restricted. Several producers use the name, including wine producers from Italy and Spain.

Under European Union law, as well as treaties accepted by most nations, sparkling wines produced outside the champagne region, even wine produced in other parts of France, do not have the right to use the term "champagne". In much of the former Soviet Union, including the three Baltic States, who are now EU members, the term Sovetskoye Shampanskoye continues to be used, with the governments of those countries claiming that the rights to the use of the word "Champagne" was granted in perpetuity to the Russian Imperial Government by the French and that this cannot be rescinded.

What is indisputable is that at least post World War Two, Soviet champagne became readily available at kiosks and shops in major Russian cities. 

It was widely advertised – even on the sides of the State's Black Marias as they dashed through the cities laden with prisoners heading for the Gulags – and became an essential part of the Russian New Year tradition. If you want your secret New Year wish to come true then you need to have the bottle open on the table as the Kremlin clocks start to chime midnight so that you can down your glass before the bells come to silence again.

The Russian taste in the nineteenth century was for champagne that we would now find overpoweringly sweet – perhaps 200 grams of sugar per litre – and even today the Russian taste runs more to sweet and semi-sweet than dry. It's reckoned that semi-sweet and sweet wines still account for over 80% of the Russian market. But the Russians had had experience – and even success – with traditionally made champagne. Prince Lev Golitsyn's champagne from his Novy Sviet estate took a Gold Medal at the Paris  Exhibition of 1900, beating those French champagnes that entered. It should be noted that the major producers did not tempt fate by entering such competitions but that's not to say there was no competition. According to the Dundee Courier of 5th June 1900, one of the features of the Exhibition was the 'riotous omnipresence' of champagne such that the 'son of temperance finds himself running up against the fizz at every turn' and the Leeds Mercury's correspondent commented on 21 April that lunch at the Russian pavilion consisted of 'limited sandwiches and unlimited champagne' .

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