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No kick from shampanskoye: new law falling flat at upscale Moscow bars

The Guardian logo The Guardian 10/07/2021 Andrew Roth in Moscow
a bottle of wine: Photograph: Itar-Tass/Alamy © Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Itar-Tass/Alamy

Last orders at the Magnum wine bar in Moscow’s White Square business district are called before midnight due to a Covid curfew. Only the vaccinated can drink inside so drinkers congregate outside, bottles of wine chilling in metal buckets.

These are confounding times for the Russian capital’s fine wine and champagne bars, not only operating during a pandemic but – as of Friday last week – coming to terms with a bizarre new law that ignores France’s appellations for champagne and rules that only domestically produced shampanskoye is worthy of the prestigious name.

The wine buckets sweat away in heatwave conditions, but ask the upscale Russian clientele whether they are ready to accept French champagne as “sparkling wine” and you will get a distinctly cool reaction.

“Champagne is still champagne,” smiled Ilya, a consultant in his 20s taking a cigarette break. He had settled on prosecco that evening and said he was not averse to ordering a bottle of Russian sparkling wine. “It’s good, but you can’t just change the rules [about champagne].”

The provocative legislation signed by Vladimir Putin a week ago, which requires all non-Russian producers to label their bottles in Russia as “sparkling wine”, has had little impact so far in Moscow’s high-end bars and cafes, where import laws are not expected to change how champagnes are served to customers.

a man holding a bottle of wine: A supermarket in Moscow: French champagne supplier Moët Hennessy briefly halted deliveries to Russia when the law was introduced. Photograph: Sergei Bobylev/Tass © Provided by The Guardian A supermarket in Moscow: French champagne supplier Moët Hennessy briefly halted deliveries to Russia when the law was introduced. Photograph: Sergei Bobylev/Tass

A hostess at Magnum laughed when asked whether the bar would be repopulating the champagne section of its menu with Russian products from the wine-growing Kuban region.


Video: French champagne producers fume over the new Russia labelling law (France 24)

French champagne producers fume over the new Russia labelling law
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“I don’t think we’re going to change anything for now,” she said, showing a price list for champagnes that began at about 6,000 roubles (£60) and went many times higher. “We’ll see what happens.”

But there are fears that French champagne suppliers will be scared off because of the new rules that will force them to reclassify their product, ignoring a nearly 120-year heritage recognised around the world. The supplier Moët Hennessy has temporarily halted deliveries of champagnes such as Dom Pérignon to Russia and a French winemakers’ association has said that the Champagne region is “outraged” by the decision.

“If champagne actually won’t be delivered to Russia, and that is possible, only Russia and our guests will be losing out,” said Elena Lebedeva, the head sommelier for Perelman People, whose popular bars include Moscow’s Beer&Brut and I Like Wine.

“We have spent a long time with our guests, educating and explaining to them that champagne can only be called a wine made in the Champagne region of France,” she said. “Many of our guests actually only drink champagne. Undoubtedly, the supply of sparkling wine from other countries will increase, but that certainly won’t be a replacement for champagne.”

Vladimir Putin wearing a suit and tie: Vladimir Putin, who includes wine producers among his prominent allies, signed the legislation earlier in July. Photograph: Mikhail Metzel/Tass © Provided by The Guardian Vladimir Putin, who includes wine producers among his prominent allies, signed the legislation earlier in July. Photograph: Mikhail Metzel/Tass

The law is widely seen as a courtesy to Russia’s bubbly producers, who include prominent friends and allies of Putin. But it is hard to find a person in the industry who supports it. Artur Sarkisyan, a wine expert who has a restaurant that specialises in Russian wines, told TV Rain that “everything was done incorrectly” and that the new rules were introduced “hastily”.

The owner of a wine bar that serves champagnes who asked not to be identified said the law was “absurd” but that he thought it would have a “minimal” impact on business. “People who want champagne know the difference,” he said.

Related: Shampanskoye: French champagne industry in a fizz over Russian law

Russian deputies have claimed they are protecting the domestic sparkling wine industry, but even the owners of Abrau-Durso, the Russian wine producer whose stock briefly spiked 8% on news that French suppliers could be halting imports, downplayed the news, telling Reuters: “We are in completely different price segments – imported French champagne is many times more expensive.”

a bottle of wine: Bottles of Russian-produced sparkling wine are packed in boxes at Kornet, a Moscow-based winery. © Photograph: Itar-Tass/Alamy Bottles of Russian-produced sparkling wine are packed in boxes at Kornet, a Moscow-based winery.

The biggest recent change to Moscow’s bar and restaurant culture has been the empty interiors, as new Covid rules mean that only vaccinated Russians with a QR code can get inside. When it comes to shampanskoye, however, bars say they are going to stay the course.

“If we are selling namely [French] champagne, it’s going to remain in the champagne section,” said Lebedeva. “We are not going to change the menu.”

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