We all love to toast just about any (adult) occasion with ‘champagne’ but did you know that it’s only officially Champagne (yes, capital ‘C’) if it comes from the Champagne region of France? All other bubbly is technically just ‘sparkling wine.’ NOT that there’s a difference in how it’s made everywhere else (except for that whole unique terroir thing, of course), but it just wouldn’t be proper to call Cabernet Sauvignon made in Italy “Napa Valley Cab” right?
Okay the analogy is close but the fact is that Champagne is actually a proper noun. It’s an actual place, not a style of wine even if it’s become intimately associated with the bubbly stuff that tickles our fancy and enlivens our parties.
Similar battles have been waged over the savory, flaky delights known as ‘pasties’ – which you’re probably more familiar with as ‘Cornish pastries’ (or ‘Cornish pasties’) – due to the fact that Cornish pasties are actually named after the very specific region of Cornwall in the UK. Yes, there was an official legal ruling from the European commission in 2011 that awarded the dish PGI (protected geographical indication) status.
Pish posh, you say. Well, there’s an actual Cornish Pasty Association that oversees the proper baking of these belly-filling delights and no, I probably wouldn’t get into a mouthy battle with them. They have every right to protect their ‘trademark’ just as, well, Kleenex has a right to defend theirs.
Yes, everyone’s favorite — or at least highly needed — facial tissues are made by many companies and only one of them is actually called Kleenex! The highest form of public awareness for your brand is to have it become the preferred vernacular. How many times have you heard “Do you have a Kleenex?” when the person simply means a tissue. And how many times have you heard “Let’s have a champagne toast!” when someone is probably opening a sparkling wine from literally any place besides the hilly Champagne wine region in the north of France.
Again, this doesn’t mean that sparkling wines from other places are inferior. By no means is that the case. Nor are pasties made in, say, Tokyo by a newly launched bakery potentially inferior to those handmade in Cornwall with recipes dating back centuries. You just can’t rightfully call the ones in Tokyo ‘Cornish’. I’m sure the good folks in Cornwall wouldn’t call their sake “Japanese sake”… if they made sake in Cornwall, that is.
Parmiggiano-Reggiano is similarly a fiercely protected designation even if we’re accustomed to calling versions of the flaky, salty hard cheese that was born in the namesake region things like “parmesan cheese.” Like with Kleenex, the makers of real ‘parm’ in the designated regions of Italy are happy to have this entire category evoke them (they have worked hard for hundreds and hundreds of years, after all), but they draw the line, as they should, with a cheesemaker from Wisconsin calling a cheese made in Wisconsin after an actual place thousands of miles and an ocean away.
Perhaps an even bigger battle is over the right to call your dessert or fortified wine “port.” Like Champagne (and Cornwall, and Parma), Port is an actual place on the map. Well, it’s a shortened version of that place — the city of Porto in the beautiful country of Portugal — but the name is really only reserved for offerings that come from the Douro Valley within Portugal. These days, as per a similar legal ruling, sweet fortified wines can only be called ‘port’ IF they truly are made in Portugal. Okay, so there’s actually a grandfather clause that says if you were making such wine before the ruling you can continue calling it such, but anyone trying to make a similar offering after the ruling has to call it ‘fortified wine’ or something else.
As mentioned, the European Union, that massive governing body that oversees many countries in Europe, has a very real and in-depth Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) set of rules and documentation “aimed at preserving the designations of origin of food-related products.”
This isn’t just fanciful NIMBY-ism (Not In My Back Yard), it’s a big business to have proper designations and it really benefits you the consumer as much as anyone. It’s very helpful to know you’re getting an authentic wine (or product) from a place that it’s touted to have been produced, and with wines in particular, we all know that the special feeling of place — a.k.a. terroir (see the above PDO link which specifically mentions terroir as the driving factor in the process) — is paramount for really understanding and enjoying a good wine or food product.
As for how and why port is made… that’s a tale for another blog post!