Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Moscow Diary: Shampansky

One of my absolute favourite things about Russia is the Soviet Champagne. In Russian it's written with a 'sh' at the beginning, so I call it shampansky to make sure we don't get confused!

I was once told that 'shampansky' dates from the war, with the French allowing the Russians to call their sparkling wine 'champagne' as a thank-you for rescuing them from the Nazis. The story never did ring true - do trademarks work like that? And anyway, we all know that the French Resistance liberated France on its own. And as it turned out, the truth was more prosaic.

Sparkling wine has been produced in Russia since Tsarist times, but true 'Soviet' Shampansky dates from the Stalin era, when an aristocratic chemist called Anton Frolov-Bagreev (yes, I know the link is in Russian, but that's what Google Translate is for) developed a mass production technique. Frolov-Bagreev had an interesting personal history - a Tsarist winemaker who was exiled to Siberia for his participation in the 1905 revolution, he was reprieved in 1906 when his expertise was realised to be essential. Come the Revolution, this history, combined with his continued value as an expert wine maker, was enough to override his aristocratic background. In 1934 came his final triumph - the development of a technique to make sparkling wine in vats rather than in bottles, dramatically reducing costs and making a "people's champagne" or "sovietsky shampansky".

And since then, they haven't looked back. Come the fall of communism, private companies bought the 'sovietsky shampansky' label, and have been marketing it that way ever since. It's available in every supermarket, starting at a bargainous 92 Rubles, or less than £2. The 92 ruble stuff is pretty undrinkable... unless you add some kind of fruit juice... but for 150 rubles you can get something enjoyable. Which makes it totally feasible to bring shampansky to any kind of social gathering - even if that gathering consists of a night train.

There's something marvellously decadent about being able to invite someone over for an afternoon of champagne whenever you want to. A lifestyle that is definitely beyond me in the UK, but which, thanks to dodgy Russian trademarking, is totally within my reach here. Sadly, though, shampansky's days are numbered. According to the wine-connoisseur's section of the internet, Russia has agreed to stop using the shampansky branding, in exchange for their trademarks being recognised by other wine regions.

I suppose there is a case to be made that Russia becoming a constructive member of the international trademark community is a Good Thing. But I like being able to order soviet champagne in bars, and drink bubbly as often as I like. So... bah, humbug!

Also, I love that this only happened when a shampansky owner bought vineyards in Champagne. Which I'm sure is a coincidence. Not.



  1. Grammar geek moment: it's actually Sovetskoe Shampanskoe (советское шампанское), making them both adjectives (that would modify vino, the missing neuter noun). /grammar nerd.

    And I totally love it as well-- it's always a little too sweet, but it's always cheap, fun and boozy!

  2. Pedantry, I am afraid, but 92 roubles is in fact almost two pounds -- still a bargain though!

  3. Yeah, I meant £2... typo there... whoops. Corrected now - thanks.