An award-winning UK winery pulled up by regulators for illegally calling a wine it made using Argentinian grapes ‘wine’ under EU law says that current labelling rules are hopelessly out of step with consumer needs.
Chapel Down Winery imported Argentinian grapes to produce a one-off vintage of around 1,300 bottles for World Malbec Day, but was then told by the UK Wine Standards Board (which polices EU regulations) that the product was not ‘technically’ a wine, and it was illegal to label it as such.
According to Point B(5) of Annex XVb to Regulation (EC) No 1234/2007, it is prohibited to turn into wine on the EU territory imported grapes from third countries.
Frazer Thompson, CEO of Chapel Down Winery, told BeverageDaily.com: “This bizarre rule means I could have brought these grapes from Argentina into Algeria and made them [into wine] and then shipped this into France – that would have been perfectly OK.”
As a marketing and brand-driven company, Chapel Down was trying to make buying wine and understanding wine easier for consumers, not more difficult, Thompson added. On May 9 his firm held a ‘non-wine tasting’ at the European Parliament to raise awareness of its concerns.
He said: “For us, this whole issue is a bigger issue about labelling in wine, which is hopelessly out of kilter with consumer needs and is completely different from any other beverage labelling we are aware off.”
Compared to, say, whisky or gin labelling, wine labelling was simply confusing, Thompson said, and having geographical points of origin for wines may be in the consumer interest, “but it’s much more in the consumer interest to know what sort of grape it will contain, where it’s from”.
“So simply saying – ‘this is a Malbec made from grapes grown in Argentina made in Tenterden, England’ (as we wanted to do) seems to me very straightforward thing to say on a wine label, yet it is completely illegal.
“Yet putting Celtis Australis on a label [of a French wine from Saint Chinian] and then putting the back label wholly in French seems to me to be a crazy way of labelling that isn’t in the consumer interest,” he added.
Discussing the rationale for current labelling laws, European Commission spokesman for agriculture and rural development, Roger Waite, told BeverageDaily.com: "If he [Thompson] is a winemaker, then surely its in his interest to protect what he produces where he is."
"If you could have Chablis from Croydon [in the UK] and wine made absolutely anywhere, from a quality perspective this would raise enormous questions, and given traditions, culture and quality, it doesn't seem to be in anybody's interest."
But Thompson said the Malbec issue highlighted the need for, firstly, an “honest appraisal” of wine labelling regulations, and “secondly, we shouldn’t have any hindrance put on co-operation and innovation between countries, whether that’s in the EU or outside the EU.”
“Our staff learnt some really interesting techniques in Argentina. Unfortunately, co-operating the way we did doesn’t appear to be a viable option, which doesn’t make sense to me," he added.
‘Bonkers Brussels bureaucrats’
Asked whether the regulation protected French wine producers, Thompson said: “The law is there to stop people bringing cheap grapes into the EU – and like Swiss watches, putting a watch in a box in Switzerland doesn't mean it’s Swiss made. So there are good reasons for that regulation.”
But a “light touch” was crucial, Thompson said. “The biggest protection I have is my brand by making a bad product or misleading a consumer would be the biggest mistake I would make. So how do we protect the consumer? By being as open as possible on labels.”
“For instance, you’ve got Chablis and Chablis. You can pay ₤60 (€75) for a bottle, or you can pay ₤6. It still says ‘Chablis Appellation Contrôlée’ on it. Where’s the sense in that?”
Chapel Down’s experience has also raised the hackles of controversial UK Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage, who said: “For years I’ve been telling you that the Brussels bureaucrats are absolutely bonkers – here is proof.”
The EU was a “protectionist club” that found it difficult to stop wine imports from elsewhere, Farage said, so it deliberately made it hard to import grapes from elsewhere, simply to protect French wine producers.
But Waite disagreed: "This is not true. The EU has a very open wine market and we are very active in importing wines, and also in exporting wines. And it's not in our interest to encourage protectionism on world wine markets."