European Union: Commission Relaxes Wine Labelling Rules for Non-EU Producers

Last Updated: 22 September 2004
Article by Kevin O'Connor

Originally published June 2004

On 24 February 2004, the European Commission adopted Regulation (EC) 316/2004 to permit wine producers located outside the EU to use "traditional expressions" to describe and label their wines when sold within the EU market. "Traditional expressions" are terms used historically to designate quality wines by reference to colour, quality or a particular production or ageing method. Terms such as "tawny", "ruby", "hock" and "Est Est Est" may now be used by non-EU countries to describe wine sold within the EU provided that such non-EU third countries can demonstrate observance of a criteria designed to ensure quality.

The Regulation was introduced by the Commission principally to ensure conformity of EU legislation with the EU's international commitments under the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIP) and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). Under the previous controls imposed by Regulation (EC) 753/2002, some traditional expressions such as "fino" and "claret" which had been used for a long time in other parts of the world were prohibited from appearing in the EU market on the labels of wine produced by third countries. Franz Fischler, European Commissioner for Agriculture, Rural Development and Fisheries, commented: "The nature of the conditions which have to be fulfilled by third countries for the use of EU traditional expressions ... constitute a guarantee against any abusive use. These amendments enhance the protection of interests of producers and consumers, market transparency and fair competition, which the regulation on wine labelling was set off to safeguard, and a response to our international level commitments."

Regulation 753/2002 had established a system of two categories of traditional expressions. The first category contained expressions such as 'château', 'classico' and 'reserva' whose use by a third country was permitted under certain conditions. The second category was reserved exclusively to describe wines produced in the EU and contained expressions linked to production in particular geographical areas such as 'toscarno', 'amarone', and 'vin jaune'. The new Regulation simplifies this system by merging the two categories into a single category. A third country will be allowed to use any traditional expression provided the country proves to the satisfaction of the Commission and Member States that the term:

  1. has been used in the country for at least ten years;
  2. is recognised and governed by rules which apply to wine producers or laid down by representative producer organisations and which do not mislead the consumer regarding the term;
  3. is specific; and
  4. is distinctive and/or enjoys a reputation in the country.

A further requirement has been set that only traditional expressions in the official language of the third country in question can be authorised. The use of an expression in a language other than the official language will only be allowed where the use of that language is provided for in the legislation of the country concerned and where the traditional expression in question has been in continual use in the country for a minimum of 25 years. This final requirement will cause particular concern for producers in Spain and France given the particularly widespread use of Spanish and French in wine producing third countries.

The amendments were passed by the Commission despite strong opposition from most major wine producing Member States - first and foremost Italy but also France, Spain, Greece, Portugal and Luxembourg. Giuseppe Martelli, president of the Italian wine association, "Assenologi" said: "The reason for this turnaround is a political one, in response to the WTO's pressure and accusation of EU protectionism. We risk losing our cultural and territorial heritage by falling right into the hands of wine-pirates. Non-EU countries will legally be able to sell Brunello from Argentina, Amarone from South Africa, Morellino from New Zealand, Recioto from Australia or Vin Santo from Chile."

The amendments should provide the Commission with additional flexibility in its negotiations with foreign wine producing countries, in particular the US and Australia. Negotiations with Australia, aimed at finalising the 1994 EU-Australia Wine Agreement, were scheduled to resume in Brussels on 1 April 2004 and will cover the protection of intellectual property relating to geographical indications and traditional expressions. Last December the EU extended a temporary wine imports and exports deal with the United States, but failed to reach agreement on the use of names such as Chablis, Burgundy and Chianti.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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