The Loophole that makes it legal to use the term California Champagne

Champagne isn’t just the world’s most famous drink, it’s also a wine region in France where the bubbly got its name sake. For a bottle of bubbles to be labeled “Champagne” it must come from this region AND be produced using the Method Traditionelle / Method Champenoise. However, there is an exception for few wine producers in the United States who can in-fact legally use the term Champagne.

It’s true and we can thank a 100-year-old loophole in The Treaty of Versailles from WW1 and National Prohibition.  However, I think we can all agree that Prohibition really doesn’t deserve a thank you.

National Probition Sign

To fully understand, this American wine history, our lesson must begin with some historical, political details.

In 1891 France set out to protect the “Champagne” name internationally through the Madrid Agreement. At the time, this agreement only included European countries. Fast forward to November of 1918, WWI is ending and The Treaty of Versailles will be signed a few months later in 1919, which included Article 275. This article formally – again – established that only sparkling wines from Champagne could be labeled as Champagne. The U.S. signed the treaty BUT the Senate never ratified it. Since the country was entering National Prohibition no one pushed it.

From what I understand, Article 275 was added to the treaty – again – since France and Germany had issues over mislabeling of sparkling wines and brandies. I don’t really understand how you could confuse the two but ok…

I actually had the privilege of chatting with Paul Ahvenainen the Director of Winemaking from Korbel Winery – one of those few California Champagne producers – on the Carpe Travel podcast to help shed a little more light on this.  

“Champagne is a region about an hour outside of Paris that became synonymous with producing sparkling wines. But, sparkling wine wasn’t actually invented there. It was invented in Britain of all places. So in 1882 when Korbel Winery was founded  there was no question what they were going to call their sparkling wine – Champagne. That’s what everybody did at that time.”

“As time went on, the U.S. went into Prohibition after WWI. It was at this time that there was some movement in Europe to protect the names of certain wine regions. The U.S. wasn’t involved in these talks since we were in Prohibition. When Prohibition was repealed, Korbel Winery and everyone else in the U.S. went right back to making and labeling wines California Champagne. Then WWII came along and using the term Champagne really didn’t come back onto the radar screen until the 1950’s and even then it didn’t become an issue until the 1970’s. By this time we had over 90 years of using the term Champagne on our products.”

Paul Ahvenainen the Director of Winemaking from Korbel Winery
California Champagne

The Judgement of Paris took place on May 24, 1976, putting the U.S. back on the map after beating French wines in a blind wine tasting competition. Coincidence on the timing?

It took nearly two decades to come to an agreement but as part of the agreement the term Champagne could still be used if a producer had been using it – and marketing their sparkling wines – prior to March 10, 2006. BUT all sparkling wines must state, “California Champagne”.

There are a lot of wineries that could actually use the term “California Champagne” but few have opted to do so, instead they stick with the term “Sparkling Wine”. Of those who do use the term “California Champagne”, it’s Korbel Winery , Cook’s, André and Wycliff.

Cheers to California Champagne!

California Champagne

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One Comment

  1. philip Engelen says:

    I must admit i was surprised by your comment , that believe it or not champagne or sparkling wine was was first invented in Britain . Wine making it is believed has been going on in Britain for over 2000 years , with Romans being keen wine makers around there empire .Plus the British are one of the countries around the world that is a major buyer of french sparkling wines and champagnes .

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