Why The Treaty Of Versailles Has A Clause About Champagne

By Tyler Parsons on Sunday, May 11, 2014
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“When a man says no to champagne, he says no to life.” —Julien Grinda, The Deer Hunter (1978)

In A Nutshell

The French take their Champagne really seriously. This is why, in most of the world, it is illegal to call your sparkling wine “Champagne.” They even had this inserted into the Treaty of Versailles. That was despite the fact that French Champagne had been saved by foreign plants shortly beforehand. However, one nation has stood up to France and has asserted its right to make Champagne, and it’s due (of course), to the League of Nations.

The Whole Bushel

The Madrid Treaty of 1891 first saw the French lay out the rule that only wine from the geographical region of Champagne could call itself “Champagne.” Because of this, they needed to clearly delineate the previously undefined borders of said region. When some areas were left out, locals rioted and destroyed millions of bottles of Champagne (or rather “sparkling wine”). Champagne naming rights were evidently a serious issue.

Eventually, the Treaty of Versailles was convened to settle the end of World War I. Here again, the French inserted a bit about their grapes, adding in Article 275, which “regulate[d] the right to regional appellations in respect of wines or spirits.” This was brought on because the region of Champagne, located in the northeast of the country, had been devastated by warfare, and they feared foreign competitors moving in on the market.

However, America has stood up to France’s Champagne-based tyranny and upholds the right of California products (when made of the same grapes and the same methods) to bear the label. This is because the US failed to ratify the Treaty of Versailles in opposition to President Woodrow Wilson’s move to found the League of Nations. So in a roundabout way, the League of Nations is responsible for America’s right to home-grown Champagne (even if the League wasn’t good for much else).

This hasn’t stopped French producers from trying to “educate American consumers about the uniqueness of the wines of Champagne and expand their understanding of the need to protect the Champagne name in the United States.” That’s the mission statement of the Champagne Bureau (ominous sounding, isn’t it?), which represents the trade association of Champagne grape growers and producers, and whose website places the proclamation “Champagne only comes from Champagne, France” front and center.

What if, however, French grapes were part American? Sacre bleu! You see, in the second half of the 19th century, European grapevines were devastated by a plague of Phylloxera, and French Champagne, for all its eminent superiority, was not immune. Phylloxera is an insect that feeds on the sap in a vine’s roots and secretes a saliva that prevents the wound from healing, resulting in the vine’s eventual death.

This had been imported on American rootstock (planters were experimenting with genetical engineering options) that, unlike its Old World counterparts, was immune to the bug, thus offering a simple solution. Yes, Champagne was saved by grafting French vines onto American roots. However, before this could be done, millions of acres had been destroyed, and all manner of other methods were attempted: pesticides, bug cannibalism (the importation of another closely related insect that failed to find its cousin appetizing), and numerous others (the Ministry of Agriculture was offering 300,000 francs for a solution). All of these were played out before recalcitrant planters finally agreed to condone grafting “inferior” American roots onto their stock.

Show Me The Proof

CNN: Bubble trouble: Not-so-sweet champagne history
1000 Years of Annoying the French, by Stephen Clarke
Champagne vs. Sparkling Wine
Phylloxera: How Wine Was Saved For The World