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So how is traditional Europe responding to the threat of continued loss of international market share? By cheating and changing the rules as it goes along. Don’t believe me? Let’s then take a look at the very current story of what we in Australia were until very recently able to call ‘Prosecco’.

01 Aug 2010

By Jeremy Oliver

So how is traditional Europe responding to the threat of continued loss of international market share? By cheating and changing the rules as it goes along. Don’t believe me? Let’s then take a look at the very current story of what we in Australia were until very recently able to call ‘Prosecco’.

 ‘Prosecco’ was the name of the sparkling white wine as well as the grape variety responsible for it that came from the Veneto region of Italy, traditionally in an area near Conegliano and Valdobbiadene, in the hills north of Treviso. The name of the grape derives from the village of Prosecco, a short distance from Trieste, but about 100km from where these finer examples of its wine are grown.

Prosecco’s past is not a distinguished one, and until the 1960s the wine was hard to separate from the basic Asti Spumante of Piedmont. However, improvements in winemaking and a bid to create an identity in the marketplace for its wine led to significant improvements in quality, to the extent that ‘Prosecco’ became an internationally recognised wine. In Australia, the Dal Zotto family in Victoria’s King Valley were the first to plant and make wine from prosecco, the grape variety, and their efforts have resulted in some truly delicious examples of the wine.

Back in Italy, the Proseccos of di Conegliano-Valdobbiadene, di Conegliano and di Valdobbiadene achieved DOC (Denominazione di origine controllata) status, but the Italian Government only granted the areas around these villages with IGT (Indicazione geografica tipica) status, a modest level of recognition that indicates a kind of wine that is not deeply entwined with Italian wine tradition. In other words, the sparkling white wines from the prosecco grape were of potential quality, but did not reflect the area’s historical background. This is an important factor, since it can be interpreted as something of a snub by the regulators to the wine and its growers.

All this began to change when the makers of Prosecco di Conegliano-Valdobbiadine (one of the better sub-regions) sought to raise its status from DOC to DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita), which it achieved on August 1, 2009. We now had a DOCG level region whose name used the word ‘Prosecco’, wine from a large surrounding area called ‘Prosecco’ – much of which was sold in cans and promoted by wine-drinking luminaries of the likes of Paris Hilton, plus an emerging number of quality wines from other parts of Italy and around the world making wines from the prosecco grape, which quite naturally they called ‘Prosecco’. As was their right, since it was the correct name of the variety.

On the day that DOCG status was granted for Prosecco di Conegliano-Valdobbiadene, it was also granted for Prosecco di Montello e Colli Asolani. Furthermore, a new DOC was established to replace the old IGT status of the provinces of Belluno, Gorizia, Padova, Pordenone, Treviso, Trieste, Udine, Venezia, and Vicenza. In just a few years, the Italian Government decided that Prosecco had become a part of its winemaking tradition.

So far, so good. A new wine style and its grape variety had achieved recognition. But in choosing to keep the name of the prosecco grape variety as part of the DOCG names and as part of the DOC zone, the Italians knew that they were stacking their own hands. Let’s not forget that the actual village of Prosecco is rather a long way from these new denominations. Italy played significant geographical tricks as a step towards owning the name of the grape – not through copyright issues, but through the new PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) appellation system within Italy and through the series of agreements made by other wine-producing countries such as Australia with the EU.

Australia’s agreement with the EU specifies that for our winemakers to be able to use the name of a grape variety on wines exported to the EU, the variety’s name must be included on the list published by the International Organisation for Vine and Wine (OIV). However, you don’t see the word ‘Prosecco’ on this list. Instead, in April this year, ‘Prosecco’ joined another list of protected European names.

What you now see in its place as a permissible term is ‘glera’, the new name the grape variety hitherto known as ‘prosecco’ has suddenly been given. This is a cynical, game-changing play by the EU, and despite protestations from countries like Australia, is not about to change anytime soon.

Harder hit than the Australians, who are still able to use the term ‘prosecco’ for non-exported wines of the now-‘glera’ grape variety are the Italian makers of this wine whose vineyards fall outside the new region. Whether their wine is exported or not, they have to change its name. But you don’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs, something well known to European legislators.

So, for all bottles exported, Dal Zotto and their ilk from countries like Australia with EU agreements must call their wines ‘Glera’, unless they think of some other non-varietal name. Personally, if the choice were mine, I’d be doing that!

To defend their turf, the Italians have changed the name of a grape and created a region whose name is a place that lies well outside that region. Imagine if the French did the same thing. Without holding this nation up as a paragon of virtue in this regard, it could perhaps choose to change the name of greater southern Burgundy to that of the village of Chardonnay, a charming little village off the E21 between Macon and Beaune. Then there would be nothing to stop the French from doing the same thing and preventing the rest of the world from using the name of this white variety, upon which they would no doubt inflict a marketing nightmare of a name. Nobody outside Burgundy would then use the name ‘Chardonnay’. An interesting concept, but one that has already happened.

Published: 01 Aug 2010