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8. April 2010, opening day of Vinitaly: for the first time an Italian head of state visits the most important wine fair of the Bel Paese. The reception is not only warm because even before the trip to Verona, Giorgio Napolitano signed the new national wine law. It replaces decree no. 164 from 1992, and is celebrated as a milestone by the wine sector. Rightly so? An overview of the innovations by Markus Blaser.

One thing first: the fact that Italy is getting a new wine law at all is not thanks to its politicians, but to the European Union. With the Common Market Organisation for wine introduced in 2008, the member states were obliged to adapt their national regulations to the new European rules. In this respect, the new wine law in many respects only repeats what has long been decided at EU level.

However, the Italians were not content with merely adapting to EU law, but took the opportunity to make a few substantial innovations. Surprisingly, the impetus for this came from the officials of the Ministry of Agriculture, who presented a first draft law for discussion in mid-September 2009. This triggered heated but productive debates and surprisingly little useless polemics among stakeholders during the cold winter months.

The result is - contrary to the prevailing trend towards liberalisation and watering down - an overall framework law with mostly clearer and stricter rules.

Questionable: Wine from table grapes

The first of ten sections contains the adaptation of the Italian appellation system to the new EU regulations: DOC and DOCG become DOP; IGT becomes IGP. The old and the new appellations may be used alternatively or together on the label. Furthermore, the use of additional designations "classico", "storico", "riserva", "superiore", "novello", "passito", "vigna") is regulated in detail. Furthermore: It is mandatory to indicate the vintage on the label of DOC and DOCG wines (with the exception of sparkling, semi-sparkling and sweet wines).

The second section deals with the EU-wide protection of appellation wines. While the national preliminary procedure to be completed will be regulated in a decree yet to be drafted, the minimum requirements for the recognition of an appellation are laid down here:IGT: The creation of a new IGT (EU law: IGP) requires the wish of at least 20 percent of the winegrowers who work at least 20 percent of the vineyard area.DOC: A new DOC (EU law: DOP) requires the request of at least 35 percent of the winegrowers who represent at least 35 percent of the vineyard area and must have at least five years as IGT (IGP) behind it. Sub-zones can become an independent DOC if at least 35 percent of the winegrowers representing at least 51 percent of the vineyard area request it and the wine has acquired "commercial reputation".

DOCG: A new DOCG (EU law: DOP) requires the application of at least 51 percent of the winegrowers representing at least 51 percent of the vineyard area and must have at least ten years as a DOC behind it; a special reputation is also required due to the qualitative characteristics and the acquired "commercial reputation".

The production regulations must become stricter with each ascending category. All appellation wines may only be made from recognised grape varieties; for IGT wines, varieties under observation are also permitted.

In future, it will also be possible to vinify table grapes; the previous ban has been lifted. It is not as harmless as it sounds: in certain areas of southern Italy, astronomical yields per hectare, irrigation and intensive fertilisation produce liquids that were previously only suitable for subsidised distillation. Since the quantities involved are said to be very large and have been produced illegally up to now, it remains to be seen how pronounced the disturbance of the balance of the table wine market triggered by legalisation will be.

Furthermore, the new wine law stipulates that an appellation is cancelled if it is not used or only marginally used for three consecutive years (DOCG: less than 35 percent of the area; DOC: less than 20 percent; IGT: less than 10 percent). In these cases, Italy applies to the EU Commission for cancellation of the appellation. In the case of a PDO, an application for downgrading to IGP can also be made - the downgrading of a DOCG to DOC, on the other hand, is not provided for.

Stricter rules

In the third section, minimum requirements are set for the production regulations: delimitation of the production area, physico-chemical and sensory characteristics of the wines, minimum alcohol content, maximum yield per hectare, grape variety list, production methods, storage and bottling in the production area. Four major innovations can be noted here:

  1. With the inclusion of all vineyards in the national and electronically managed vine cadastre, the previous vineyard registers of the regions will become superfluous. Together with the list of bottlers, they will be deleted without replacement.
  2. IGT wines will also have to undergo a chemical-physical analysis in the future. Sensory testing, on the other hand, remains mandatory only for DO wines.
  3. The grape varieties from which the wine is made must now be mentioned in the production regulations. This information can also be given in percentage terms, subject to a tolerance of one per cent (previously, only the composition of the grape varieties in the vineyards was mandatory). Interesting: The ministry had proposed a tolerance of 1.5 percent, which was already too far for some industry representatives; they still opted for three percent last autumn. Now, with one percent, an even stricter position has obviously prevailed.
  4. For the restriction of bottling to the production area, the criteria are now directly integrated in the wine law and not contained in a separate decree: In the case of a new DOP or IGP, the application for compulsory bottling in the production area must concern at least two thirds of the vineyard area. If an existing production regulation is to be changed accordingly, it must additionally be supported by a number of winegrowers who together represent at least 51 percent of the bottled production. In this case, previous bottlers outside the zone may apply for a renewable exemption for five years, provided they have bottled corresponding PDO or IGP wine for at least two years within the last five years.

Position of the consortia

The fourth section regulates controls by third parties. This includes the state recognition of the control bodies, the modalities of the certification of the appellation wines or their declassification as well as the chemical-physical analysis and sensory testing. (The exact analysis and testing procedure is described in a separate law) Anyone producing a PDO or IGP wine is obliged to register with a control body - this ensures the control of all producers.

Section five concerns the national wine committee. It loses its decision-making powers on new appellations and changes to the production regulations to the EU Commission. In future, it will only have an advisory function vis-à-vis the Ministry of Agriculture and will be reduced from 40 to 20 members. In addition to the administration, regional and farmers' lobbies, the consumer associations, which are no longer represented, will lose influence, while the wine industry and wine wholesalers will retain their seats. The new committee will take up its work on 1 January 2012, until then the previous one will remain in office.

If the wine committee loses political weight, the role of the consortia in Section Six will be strengthened. This is already evident in the fact that there is no longer talk of "voluntary" consortia, but in Article 17 it is stated: "The consortium is formed among all subjects subject to the control system of the appellation." This provision, which seems rather strange in German translation, is intended to make clear that, according to the will of the legislator, all producers of an appellation should belong to the consortia as far as possible - even if there cannot be compulsory membership, as this would not be compatible with the freedom of trade and commerce. Conversely, no grape producer, self-press maker or bottler who is subject to the control system of the appellation in question can be denied access to the consortium.

A certain pressure on producers to become involved in the consortium stems from the fact that, under certain conditions, consortia can exercise their functions vis-à-vis all producers and not only their members. For a consortium to have this position of power, at least 40 per cent of the winegrowers representing at least two-thirds of the production must be members. If this is the case, the consortium can organise and coordinate production and commercialisation, regulate supply to ensure quality, represent the rights of producers vis-à-vis third parties and monitor trade. It can also prescribe the use of a consortium trademark or logo.

It thus performs the tasks of protection, promotion, market development and consumer information on behalf of all producers and not only on behalf of the consortium members. Finally, this erga omnes power also gives the consortia the right to demand an initial contribution from each new producer when they are placed under the control obligation, even if they do not join the consortium.

Furthermore, the costs of the consortium's activities are also borne not only by its members, but by all participants in an appellation. The criteria according to which they are to be distributed will be regulated in a separate decree of the Ministry of Agriculture by autumn 2010.However, a consortium can also be officially recognised if at least 35 percent of the winegrowers representing at least 51 percent of the production belong to it. In this case, it basically performs the same tasks, but only vis-à-vis the consortium members. It then does not have erga omnes powers such as supply regulation, the logo and the starting fee.

Strengthening the collective brands

The legislator's intention seems clear: the consortia - although now without certification competences - are to be strengthened. This is only logical in view of the goal of better protecting the appellations, because it encourages producers to cooperate. The consortia's advertising campaigns and market development measures benefit small and medium-sized enterprises in particular, which would not be able to raise the financial means for this. Equally positive is the fact that the consortium logo promotes the appellation as a whole and not the private brand of an individual producer.

It is therefore only logical that the Unione Italiana Vini (UIV), which primarily represents the interests of the large companies and trading houses, campaigned against the initial contribution of the Erga-omnes consortia, which affects all producers: "The wine industry launches branded wines and has the necessary budgets to market them worldwide. It is only interested in appellations if the private brand or the company name is less well known than these. If the ratio is reversed, it is more lucrative for them to leave the consortium and do marketing on their own behalf. The departure of Gancia, Martini&Rossi, Vallebelbo and others from the Asti consortium in early 2010 is an eloquent example of this process (see Merum 2/2010).

It is therefore only to be welcomed that the new wine law has put a stop to such movements. In the end, the umbrella organisation of the consortia (Federdoc) and the insight that appellations can only be seriously protected if the entirety of producers is taken to task have prevailed. In the same vein, in section seven on labelling and presentation of wines, the innovation that the banderole, which previously only DOCG wines wore, is now also mandatory for DOC wines. DOCG wines can now be sold in containers of up to six litres (previously five). Finally, it is now permitted to indicate the respective appellation on the label of processed products (grappa, vinegar, etc.), provided that the product was made from the corresponding wine. The consortium must approve the reference, provided that it is not a mere indication of content.

Those who do not comply with the rules in future will have to expect hefty fines (Section Nine): the elaborate catalogue ranges from 200 to 1000 euros for a winegrower who reports the harvest quantity a few days late, and from 30,000 to 100,000 euros for those who forge PDO labels. This sanction was massively tightened at the request of the industry: the ministry had proposed only 3000 to 15 000 euros. There are now also penalties (up to 60,000 euros) for control bodies and consortia that do not fulfil their duties or favour or disadvantage producers.Viewed as a whole, the Italians are not patting themselves on the back without good reason: if one disregards the possibility of making "wine" from table grapes, the regulations have not been watered down. Rather, the conviction has obviously prevailed in the wine sector that the appellations can only be effectively protected thanks to clear and strict rules: The fact that individual regulations have been tightened at the request of the industry representatives is remarkable.

The most important aspect of the law is undoubtedly the strengthening of the consortia, where the logic of the collective appellation has clearly asserted itself against that of the private label. This is in the interest of the small winegrowers, but also of those consumers who are equally interested in diversity and typicality. In this respect, the new Italian wine law is indeed an important step in the right direction.

Sources: Mipaaf, AIO, Winenews, Corriere vinicolo

This article is taken from Merum, the magazine for wine and olive oil from Italy, issue 3/2010. You can read more about Merum at www.merum.info

Production rules (in the picture the regulations of Nebbiolo d'Alba) used to be decided by the member states. Today, Brussels also has the final say on appellation wines (DOC, AOC, etc.). With the new wine law, Italy is adapting to the new EU rules.

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