EU Regulations

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  • Friday 21 August 2009

To unify Europe’s wine market, the EU is creating two basic designations for quality wine. Sound simple? Not entirely, as Victoria Daskal finds

Misinformed reports, off-base speculation and general confusion has circled the European Union’s new legislation on wine labelling ever since the initial proposal on EU wine reform was published almost two years ago. This would be the end of the wine world as we knew it, we were told – no more AC, DOC, Barolo or Rioja.

The labelling changes, implemented on 1 August this year by Mariann Fischer Boel, commissioner for agriculture and rural development and no3 in this year’s Decanter Power List (see July 2009) are the final stage of the European Commission’s efforts to reorganise the way the EU wine market is managed. The objectives? ‘To make EU wine producers even more competitive by enhancing the reputation of European wines and regaining market share both in the EU and outside; to make the market-management rules simpler, clearer and more effective; to achieve a better balance between supply and demand; and to preserve the best traditions of European wine growing and boosting its social and environmental role in rural areas.’

Honourable intentions, but grasping the changes has been anything but straightforward. An online search for information brings up a host of conflicting reports, as well as the Council Regulation (EC) 479/2008. At 61 pages, or 129 articles, it is long, wordy and confusing. Absorbing all the information would require a law degree or multiple espressos. Or both.

Things weren’t helped by a frenzy of conflicting reports and heated online debates. A decanter.com story last September documenting Italian producers’ fears that ‘changes planned by the EC would replace current appellation systems with standard European denominations’ led to an array of interpretations of the plans and howls of protest by outraged consumers. Rumours swirled of a ‘Stalinesque’ equalisation of wine classifications that would eliminate hundreds of existing traditional wine appellations in order to simplify and standardise European wine labels.

The concern was fuelled by erroneous reports that Italy would downsize its 316 DOCs, 38 DOCGs and 118 IGTs to a measly 182 designations. It was feared distinct denominations such as Barolo, Dolcetto, and Barbera would be scrapped and instead collectively fall under their their growing zone umbrella as a unified Barolo designation. But closer inspection of the Council Regulation shows that Barbera and Dolcetto are safe and all previously existing ‘traditional terms’ or appellations will be protected.

In its bid to simplify community rules by creating a single legal tool to unify the European wine market, the EU is establishing two basic designations for quality wine: PDO (protected designation of origin) and PGI (protected geographical indication). The major difference is that PDO requires 100% of the grapes to be from the specified region, while PGI requires only 85%. The remaining 15% may come from outside the demarcated geographical area so long as they are from the same country. Hence, a PGI wine from Tuscany could be 85% Chianti and 15% Sicily, in the same way as IGT Toscana is now. The existing equivalents of the PDO/PGI terms are DOC/IGT in Italy, or AC/VdP in France.

How the system works

The EC’s spokesman, Michael Mann, explained that while the PDO and PGI denominations are compulsory, they may be omitted if a specific traditional term (ie AC, Qualitätswein, etc) is already in use. Thus certain existing quality wines will be protected and automatically registered as of 1 August and won’t be obliged to use PDO/PGI on their labels. Additional protections are retained for certain traditional terms and bottle shapes as well as existing national quality policies.

End of story then? Not quite. Wine producers will now be able to team up to form new designations by creating a region of common vine and wine practice. And under the new legislation, final approval for a new appellation will now come from the EC rather than the national government. Mann denies this will dilute the power of the likes of the appellations authority the INAO in France ‘because the very technical work in terms of drafting product specifications with wine producers of a certain region will [still] be dealt with by national offices’.

A further change in the new legislation sees the terms ‘vin de table’ or ‘table wine’ eliminated and replaced by ‘vin’ or ‘wine’. Such non-specific wines will now be considered wines without geographical indication, and can indicate variety and vintage on their label, in an effort to compete better with New World wines.

Reactions to the changes are mixed. Bob Lindo, owner of English producer Camel Valley, was heavily involved in the negotiations but is wary of the outcome. ‘The EU missed the chance to produce a new quality-based system. To be a quality or regional wine in the UK a wine has to pass a strict chemical analysis. If it is successful, it is then tasted by a panel of experts. The pass mark is higher for quality than regional wines and failures can only be sold as UK Table Wine. Instead of something similar, the EU has gone for the old terroir-based system, rehashed to frustrate New World producers. We will ensure our system remains quality-based with the freedom to express origin, vintage and grape variety.’

So what changes will we see as consumers? Mann explains: ‘Consumers will be able to distinguish a PDO/PGI wine without being obliged to focus on the different national traditional terms used for this category of wine, such as AC or DOC. As the PDO or PGI logos can be used both within the EU and third parties’ markets, it’s a very positive labelling tool.’ At the top end, few of us will probably even notice.

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