Europe wine agreement underpins Aussie export push

Chablis, Chianti, Champagne, Claret, Frascati, Graves, Hock, Lambrusco, Moselle, Madeira, Marsala, Malaga, Port, Riesling, Sherry, Sauternes, White Bordeaux, White Burgundy etc., etc., etc. Your days are numbered (officially).

Outline of an agreement negotiated with the European Community was issued last Sunday, jointly, by Minister for Primary Industries and Energy, Simon Crean, Chairman of the Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation, George Paciullo, and President of the Winemakers’ Federation of Australia, Brian Croser,

The agreement, blessed by both government and industry, kisses goodbye to two centuries of using European place names on Australian wines.

In one sense the agreement merely confirms what was happening anyway. Twenty vigorous years of growth and innovation, and increasing pride in our wines, witnessed a strong trend towards naming our wines by brand, grape variety and region of origin. Few of our better wines now carry European place names. And the practice seems to have been trickling down to lower-priced wines in recent years.

Commercially, though, the agreement is of enormous value to Australia’s wine industry as it underpins our right of access to the EC. Mr Crean’s negotiators, under Phil Fitch, head of the Wine and Brandy section, not only secured major concessions for our exporters, but really gave nothing away in return as far as I can see.

Chuffed as the Europeans (especially the French) may be at securing names rightfully theirs, the value to them in the Australian market is, I suspect, nil. Producers may disagree, but I find it hard to believe when we finally stop using ‘Chablis’ and the like, that a single sale will be lost by our makers or gained by the Europeans, unless we look another fifty years ahead.

What the Europeans want to teach Australians is akin to telling us not to call a ball point a Biro or a vacuum cleaner a Hoover. In the long run, they’ll succeed. A future generation (not just a handfull of wine buffs) will know that Chablis is not any dry white but a chardonnay from around a North-Eastern French town of that name.

The Europeans, generously, recognise this. They accept that our usage of their geographic terms is an accident of history, not an act of deception. Our industry grew out of Europe last century and, in isolation from European markets, geographic terms passed into common usage, becoming generic terms for wine styles.

In recent years, some Australian winemakers, cynically I believe, appropriated names not in general usage. Thus, some recently acquired names will dissapear from our labels quickly: Beaujolais, Cava, Frascati, Sancerre, St Emillion and White Bordeaux may not be used after 1993. These will be followed at the end of 1997, by Chianti, Frontignan, Hock, Madeira, and Malaga.

Phasing out of the more widely used European names is still subject to negotiation, but will probably run well into next century.

Phil Fitch from the Department of Primary Industries and Energy tells me the agreement eases certification requirements for Australian wines headed for the EC. Thus eight separate analyses for every wine comes down to three… a big saving in time and money.

As well, both parties will recognise each other ‘s winemaking standards and practices. Australia becomes an immediate beneficiary as at last our unique sweet whites gain admission to EC markets. Until now, wines like De Bortoli Late Picked Semillon were barred because their combination of high alcohol and sugar content were considered ‘impossible’ to be natural.

When the agreement comes into force it will have treaty status.

Phil Fitch says the EC negotiators have at all phases (negotiations began in 1986 when John Kerin was Minister) consulted with member states. He is therefore confident that it will proceed quickly through any legislation required over there. In Australia, considerable legislation, in the realm of food regulation and trade marks, has to be drafted and passed. EC winemaking standards and practices and proprietary rights to geographic names will thus be given legal definition.

So, while much behind the scene work goes on, we can expect to see the agreement in place by late next year.

I suppose in a larger sense, it can be viewed and welcomed as part of the at times painfully slow but unrelenting move towards free world trade.

In this instance, Australia seems to be the major beneficiary. Here we are, a tiny nation, producing barely 1.7 per cent of the world’s wine, at times a victim of battles between larger nations, winning better access to the globe’s biggest wine market.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 1992 & 2007