Thursday, December 15, 2005

The history of a geographical indication

In light of persistent international debates over whether and how nations should protect geographical indications, I found Kolleen M. Guy, When Champagne Became French: Wine and the Making of a National Identity (Johns Hopkins 2003), a useful read. Guy tells the story of the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century conflicts over the definition of champagne and, in part, the definition of Frenchness as something connected to but distinct from the different parts of France.

The concept of terroir, something like the soul of the soil, that supposedly gives certain foodstuffs their unique qualities was much up for debate during the period, whereas currently the EU and France in particular give unquestioned legal protection to terms like “champagne.” Guy points out that, although often understood as a fight between capital and labor, the at-times violent disputes between vine-growers and winemakers in the Champagne region were more complicated than that. Vine-growers in the core areas of the Marne were opposed both to bottlers who wanted to use grapes from other places to make champagne and to fellow vine-growers in those other places who benefited from that practice. Meanwhile, Marne bottlers also argued that the designation champagne should be legally protected, but they wanted to limit the definition to sparkling wine bottled in the area, regardless of the source of grapes.

Guy’s story thus highlights champagne as an industrial product – not just because it requires a second processing to add the famous bubbles, but also because its production and consumption were profoundly affected by changes in transportation and modern advertising that helped make champagne the beverage of celebration and of Frenchness. The book is marred by repetitions of phrases, as if a series of journal articles had been simply stitched together, though I don’t think these chapters were in fact published elsewhere. Nonetheless, I learned a fair amount about the social construction of terroir, a concept that supposedly represents a natural and immutable connection among an area of land, its inhabitants, and the products they produce.

No comments: