Beyond GI Part 2

“Beyond GI” Part 2

The International Precedents in Context

The reason it is appropriate to consider the issues arising from the implementation and development of geographic indication systems and associated regulations in place in other countries is because of the insights it may offer as to how and why things might develop in New Zealand, and also in Australia, in the future.  It is to be hoped that understanding such issues and why they have arisen will assist with the future management of designations and labelling regulations, and consequently help to ameliorate future pressures in this country.

In its European “Old World” forms, Geographical Indications have come to place considerable (but not universal) emphasis on the initial “C” such as in the AOC and DOC/DOCG regimes of France and Italy.  Going beyond simply specifying production boundaries, regulations associated with the regimes include controls over allowed varieties (and blend proportions), yields, irrigation, alcohol levels, viticultural practices and also winemaking practices (ranging from minimum aging periods to the applications or otherwise of sugar, acid and other additives).  To be able to use the local geographic labelling, the other technical requirements must also be strictly followed.  In many areas a wine must also be submitted for tasting prior to label approval.  Failure to comply with requirements may result in either declassification to a lesser regional designation, or, worse, declassification to a label category for which any form of regional association or claims will be illegal.  The potential consequences of non-compliance may be severe, including financial penalties and even imprisonment for label fraud, not to mention the consequences of negative publicity.

This system has not been without its tensions.  Such tensions typically arise when either regional complacency creeps in, aided and abetted by the evolution of ever more stringent layers of rules, such that quality-oriented producers may even consider themselves to be forced to step out of the system.  Tensions may also arise when the system fails to allow for pioneers of new varieties or types of wine or pioneers in new areas; or in circumstances such as may result from climatic change, major disease events, technological changes, economic adjustments or other dramatic changes.

From an historical perspective it is important to recognise that the AOC and DOC regimes in France and Italy did not arrive at their current, relatively extensive forms from the outset.  Both have evolved in terms of geographic coverage.  The French AOC system has been built on a progressive process of addition of new appellations ever since the first, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, was promulgated in 1923.  Since that time the number of controlled appellations has grown to 253, and the number of vin de pays designations to 153.

In some regions the historic patterns of grape growing changed with the sequential scourges of mildew, oidium and phylloxera.  One of the features of the recent moves to expand the list of communes entitled to grow grapes for the production of AOC Champagne has been the number of candidates pointing to the fact that grapes were grown in those areas until relatively modern times, but were simply not replanted between the outbreak of phylloxera and the adoption of the existing appellation boundaries.

Today other factors need to be taken into account, such as climate change and the expectation that growing may recommence in areas that have not grown grapes for wine for several centuries but may now again be suitable, with this suitability needing to be recognised in a legal form. 

In Italy there have been many notable instances of renegades rebelling against the structures of the system.  The so-called Super Tuscans arose at one time from the way that the rules governing production of Chianti had the (no doubt unintended) effect of imposing mediocrity, or worse.  There was no way within the system to experiment with new grape varieties – for better or for worse.  Ironically the first wave of super Tuscans was superseded by another that rebelled against blending rules that prevented the creation of Chianti wines using 100% of the most notable local grape variety: Sangiovese.  For many years these producers were forced to label their wines – often the highest priced wines they bottled – with the lowest label designation allowed: vino da tavola.  It took almost two decades before the authorities responded with a broad regional designation that also allowed a degree of freedom – Indicazione Geographica (with the name of the wider region appended) – equivalent to the French vins de pays designation; and also, separately, with more flexibility as to the constituents of wine labelled Chianti Classico.

However, this is far from the end of the changes within Italy as many quality producers continue to feel constrained by the rules.  High profile cases in recent years have included Angelo Gaja’s decision to opt out of the Barbaresco and Barolo DOCG designations for his top cru wines and at a different level the decision of Antinori to opt out of the Chianti Classico DOCG for its high volume Villa Antinori label.

In some regions there are qualitative benchmarks for a producer to gain permission to use the geographic designation.  Such qualitative overlays may be policed by tasting panels.  While such panels are usually comprised of professional tasters, they are typically dominated by locals and this has often given rise to disputes when a grower’s wine is ruled unsatisfactory.  Accusations of political bias or of the abuse of panels for competitive reasons are not uncommon.  Even more common is the dispute over the acceptability (or otherwise) of divergent wine styles, especially if tasting panels are dominated by proponents of one style over others.

France – Appellation D’Origine Controlee

The driving intent behind the first and defining geographical delimitation regulatory regime, appellation d’origine in France in 1919 was to fight against rampant label fraud whereby poor quality wines were being labelled as coming from highly reputed regions.

Even in France the process of overlapping geographical delimitation with qualitative delimitation (e.g. the system of Grand crus or similar) has been fraught with endless debates and legal challenges.  The methods employed are invariably policed locally.

Another criticism that has become more trenchant of recent times is that in many regions the system has become overly complex, with too many sub-regional designations and sub-sub-regional designations, as well as criticism regarding the inflexibility of the production requirements associated with the qualitative pyramid overlaid on top.  Limitations with regard to aspects such as sugar (potential alcohol) levels, chaptalisation (in some regions), acid adjustment, oak barrel and bottle aging requirements.

European Reform

Since 2002 the European Community has been undergoing a wide-ranging process intended to unify the varying national regulatory systems into a new community-wide system.  Inevitably this process has invited controversy, both from conservatives unwilling to allow changes from the regimes in each country, and especially those in the countries that have previously adopted systems more at variance to the “simple” region of origin-type regulatory approach; and also from those who consider that, rather than resolving some of the marketing issues sometimes considered to be in large part responsible for the loss of market competitiveness of European wines, the result may be more likely to be a “dumbing down” of quality standards that will lead to even greater competitive risk.

Since the passing of the European Union wine law of 1999, the pre-existing national systems for recognition of geographic origins had been adopted and mutually recognised by the wider EU. By 2008, driven not only by the background of an increasing lattice of mutual recognition treaties with other wine producing countries but also by the growing “wine lake” and by evidence that the EU regulatory system was acting as a constraint for finding market-based solutions for wine market problems such as falling exports, falling prices and increased rural unemployment, the EU’s Agriculture Commissioner was ready to announce a new legal framework to replace the 1999 law.

The initial result in terms of framework was Council Regulation 479/2008.  This law set out a range of overriding principles covering areas such as support measures, regulatory powers, third country trade provisions including licensing, plus wider provisions governing matters such as legislated control on plantings. 

With this framework in place the focus has shifted to the detail, in the form of a series of regulations of which some have been highly prescriptive in nature (such as the controversial proposal to ban the production of rose wines using blends of both red and white grapes).

 In July 2009 a new law was enacted that will lead to the re-writing of some portions of the existing geographic designation regimes through bringing the different national systems under the auspices of a more unified EU-wide regime.  One of the fundamental underlying criticisms of the existing system that has led to this new initiative has been the perceived excess of detail and of definition to excess, and that this was inducing market stasis.  The new law reflects a desire for greater simplicity and flexibility – in other words a step back from the former level of prescriptive detail.  A very small step, of course, given that the final details reflect the intense heat of lobbying that could only be expected in the face of an initiative that threatened to undermine an industry of bureaucracy.

 As a consequence, the final outcome remains fluid.

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