Who’ll tell grandma?

In December last year Australia and Europe tied off a loose end that had been dangling since March 1994. But who’s going to tell grandma that the agreement spells the end of Australian ‘sherry’ (the name at least, if not the drink)?

We’d committed to dropping European wine names from our labels under a wine trade agreement on 1 March 1994. However, the agreement hadn’t specified the phase-out period. But the new agreement, signed in Brussels on 1 December 2008, details how and when we drop the few remaining European place names – plus a long list of ‘traditional expressions’ – from our labels.

The agreement will become effective when Australia amends the Australian Wine and Brand Corporation Act 1980 and Trade Marks Act 1995. From that point we have one year to phase out our use of Burgundy, Chablis, Champagne, Graves, Manzanilla, Marsala, Moselle, Port, Sauterne, Sherry (poor grandma) and White Burgundy, and ten years to drop ‘tokay’.

And good news for grandma – at a cost of a reported $1million ($500,000 of it from the Australian Government) the industry’s come up with a new name for Australian sherry. The draft Fortified Wine Code of Practice proposes ‘Apera’ – a word play on ‘aperitif’ – to apply across the whole sherry flavour spectrum, including those that aren’t aperitif styles. Don’t you just love committees?

But if grandma drinks commercial Apera, the transition may not be too confusing as the current descriptors ‘dry’, ‘medium dry’, ‘semi sweet’ and ‘cream’ are to remain. If, however, she enjoys a more expensive drop, she’ll search in vain for the now-forbidden ‘fino’, ‘amontillado’ and ‘oloroso’. These, too, will be replaced with style descriptors above.

The committee that gave us Apera also offers ‘Topaque’ as the replacement name for Tokay – the luscious, aged fortified wine made from the muscadelle grape, most famously in Rutherglen, northeastern Victoria.

This final mop-up of European place names is just the last fiddly little bit of a transformation that began in Australia long before the 1994 or 2008 agreements with Europe.

In reality, when did anyone last see on a retail shelf an Australian ‘Chablis’, ‘Champagne’ or ‘Burgundy’? Regional, varietal labelling began to replace these outmoded, derivative generic terms in the late seventies, gathered a head of steam during the eighties and had become mainstream by the time of the 1994 agreement.

And something the sherry – sorry, Apera – makers might note is the futile push by some in the eighties and nineties to come up with an Australian term for ‘Champagne’. Most makers didn’t give a toss. Rightly, they saw the discussion as irrelevant.

Large-scale commercial brands like Minchinbury and Great Western simply removed the word ‘Champagne’ from their labels. The strength of the brands and packaging said all that needed to be said.

And upmarket producers took individual approaches. Why, they reasoned, would a big country like Australia, with a diversity of sparkling-making regions and winemaker approaches, need a single name for upmarket bubbly styles? France’s Champagne was the distinctive product of a single region – hence, the regional name.

Our top makers gave us Croser, Pirie, Arras, Salinger, Chandon, Hanging Rock –  and many more individual brands packaged clearly as high-quality sparklers and quite often with varietal and regional information on the label. Quite simply, we didn’t need a single name. Indeed, creating one would have been a diversion from our more innovative, regional and cross-regional-blending approaches.

While it’s easy to focus on what the agreement with Europe takes away from us, it’s probably more important to see the protection it gives to our own wine names and winemaking practices.

The irony is that when we signed the 1994 agreement with Europe, we didn’t even have defensible regional names. The 1994 agreement forced us to develop our Geographic Indications system – the official naming and registering of our regions.

We initially defined Australia, then the states then the engine room of our burgeoning export industry, ‘South Eastern Australia’, embracing much of NSW, Victoria and South Australia. Then began the hard grind of defining zones within each state, then within the zones, regions, and within some regions, sub-regions to go on the register of protected names.

The new agreement protects our 112 place names, just as it protects Europe’s more than 2,500.  It also accepts many Australian winemaking techniques and eases the entry of our wines into Europe.

Grandma will soon get used to sipping McWilliams Cream or Seppelt Fine Apera. But the bigger challenge for Australian winemakers will be to convince the world that we’re not just one big, hot country making a single wine style. We’ve got a huge task ahead to reveal the tremendous diversity of styles produced across our 112 official wine growing areas.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2009