More on Prosecco Wars

More on Prosecco. The debate – outlined yesterday on this blog – about whether the Australians should be allowed to label their wines by grape and place, including use of the word ‘Prosecco’ on the label, has intensified on social media. Facebook and Twitter have been abuzz. If I were legally minded, these are the points that I think support the Australian use of the term.

The leading global authority on grape varieties (co-author of Wine Grapes with Jancis Robinson and Julia Harding), José Vouillamoz, has this to say:

I’m on the Australian side for this question. Prosecco is a grape name, and as such it cannot be protected, as ‪Jamie Goode puts it rightly in his article. In Wine Grapes (2012) we have deliberately opted to use the name Prosecco for this variety for two good reasons: 1) the rule in the International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants it that the oldest valid name of a variety/cultivar prevails over subsequent synonyms; in this case it is Prosecco. 2) Glera is a generic name applied to several distinct varieties in the province of Trieste, and most of the time it refers to Prosecco Lungo, a variety that is distinct from Prosecco (also called Prosecco Tondo) with which the widespread sparkling wine is made. The current situation is the result of a political/economical/marketing subterfuge from the Italians. Name change based on deliberate mistakes is not valid in ampelography. And not for Wine Grapes either. NB: many Italian grape scientists share this view.

This severely weakens the Italian position. Australian winemakers are using the correct name for the variety, and varieties cannot be protected. And it would be bizarre to expect them to stop, or begin using a technically incorrect name.

PDOs exist to protect regional products. The Prosecco producers would argue that they have a long history of making sparkling wine in the area. But is this a particularly distinctive product that relies on local characteristics for its flavour? The product of a unique terroir argument is damaged by the fact that the commercial success of Prosecco has led the boundaries of where it is allowed to come from to expand. Also, you can’t just protect something because it is commercially successful. If you fail to protect your invention with a patent, or it proves to be unpatentable (is there anything locally distinctive about a Charmat-method fruity fizz from the Prosecco grape) you can’t then go back later and retrospectively protect it. Besides, the issue is simple: you cannot protect a grape name, and Prosecco is still (according to the leading authorities) a grape name. The EU should never have sanctioned the Prosecco PDO, and this could be open to legal challenge.

For this reason, if I was involved with Prosecco, I’d seek to reach a compromise with the Australians, rather than taking a legal route. I understand the Italian side of the argument, but at the same time I really dislike commercial protectionism. It goes against all my instincts for fairness and openness. If the Italians are worried about competition, then make better wines, package them better and sell them better. The way Prosecco is going at the moment, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it become like Cava, which can technically be made in any region of Spain as long as the production rules are adhered to.

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