When an EU wine labeling law was brought into the spotlight late 2014, it looked like 2015 was going to be a battleground between winemakers and shortsighted regulators. Thankfully, common sense saved the day.
The last gift of 2014 to the wine world arrived a few hours before the New Year’s toast. On December 31, the Ministry of Agriculture in Italy ruled that the name of where a wine is produced may be used on the wine label, on the winery’s website, and on all communication material. In other words, producers may now legally say that their Barolo was made in the Langhe, and that their Barbera comes from Piemonte.
“Obviously,” you might be saying to yourself. But before the Ministry formally sanctioned this right for winemakers, it looked like producers were gearing up for a topographic battle against the European Union in 2015.
The debate was sparked by a little-known European law (1308 from 2013) created in the interest of consumers. This law stated that any geographic name tied to the appellations, or denominations, that signify and protect the quality of wines (IGT, DOC, or DOCG) could not appear on a bottle's label or in any communication material if it was not that particular wine. For example, “produced in Piemonte” would never be allowed to appear on a Barolo because the wine Piemonte DOC exists. Or, simply communicating the fact that a Barbera d’Alba comes from the hills of the Langhe or a Chardonnay from the Roero would be illegal, because both Langhe and Roero DOC and DOCG wines exist.
This EU law, which was set to be implemented in the first months of 2015, created a paradox. The very same Denomination of Origins that should have protected a wine (“Piemonte,” “Langhe,” but also “Toscana,” to take an example further afield) lost value as they were excluded from the dozens of great wines that are produced in these regions and help to make these DOCs and DOCGs important.
Acutely aware of this bureaucratic impasse, the FIVI (Federation of Independent Italian Winemakers) were on their soapboxes – or wine barrels – in protest. From the very beginning, the FIVI promised they’d be a formidable resistance to the bitter end: if the law were not modified, the 800 members would have willingly violated it in an attempt to inundate the supervisory board. Those red-tape wielding guys would have had to slog through Bacchus-knows-how-many cases in order to take action.
The FIVI requested the board to distinguish between the “actual label” and “communication material related to the label.” Writing a place name directly on the bottle could be potentially confusing, they allowed; but describing where it comes from on the website or in brochures is not likely to mislead consumers.
It was a reasonable request, and FIVI was rewarded with more than they asked for: on December 31, 2014, the operation succeeded in convincing the Ministry to change the EU law. According to the written communication (which can be found here), now the Italian legislation permits the geographic name of the zone of production to be written on the label (in small font) and in all communication material – as long as it is used only to inform the consumer and not to mislead him. Only wines under a denomination (DOCG, DOC, IGT) may make use of this law; lesser wines like table wines cannot.
Italy succeeded in steering the EU towards common sense this time. This new law, a welcome way to bring in the New Year, brings to mind another one of FIVI’s requests that they’ve been pushing since January 2014: an independent board for label certification and controls. Currently, a mish-mash of organizations that otherwise have nothing to do with wine regulates this task – such as the Guardia di Finanza, the Italian law enforcement agency that takes care of issues like tax evasion. Sometimes producers get an “okay” from one organization, and then they turn around and another fines them. The FIVI have asked for a centrally managed board that controls, verifies, and regulates the conformity (or non-conformity) to label laws. But that’s another battle for another time. For now, we’ll raise a glass to this small but essential victory.