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Swiss absinthe standoff ends: Génépi the next alpine battleground?

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By Ben Bouckley+

03-Sep-2014
Last updated on 05-Sep-2014 at 16:25 GMT

Photo: IntangibleArts/Flickr
Photo: IntangibleArts/Flickr

Swiss Val-de-Travers absinthe distillers have dropped their exclusive claim to ‘absinthe’ as a national Geographic Indication (GI) and will instead apply to protect the term ‘Absinthe Val-de-Travers’.

Last month Switzerland’s Federal Administrative Tribunal (TAF) ruled 'absinth' was a generic name that shouldn’t refer specifically to absinthe made in the municipality, which local producers claim is the home to the mysterious green spirit.

They had hoped to reserve the term for their products alone sold in Switzerland, but hit stiff opposition from rival Swiss, French and German distillers – including Pernod Ricard Switzerland.

The Association Interprofessionnelle de L’Absinthe represents Val-de-Travers producers, and this Monday it admitted defeat, no doubt aware that appealing the TAF decision would be costly and hold an uncertain outcome.

spiritsEUROPE welcomes Val-de-Travers alternative

Following a meeting of its general assembly this week, the Association decided to apply anew to the Swiss Federal Office of Agriculture (OFAG) to protect the denominations ‘Fee verte Val-de-Travers’ and ‘Absinthe Val-de-Travers’ as Protected Geographic Indications (PGIs).

Prior to this decision, spiritsEUROPE DG Paul Skehan raised this alternative as a possibility while talking to BeverageDaily.com: “For us this is no problem,” he said. “It leaves open the opportunity for other producers around Europe to use the term absinthe," he said.

More broadly, Skehan welcomed TAF’s decision to overturn OFAG’s August 2012 decision confirming the registration of ‘Absinthe’, ‘Fee verte’ and ‘La bleue’ for the sole use of Val-de-Travers producers.

“We think it’s the correct decision. Clearly they [Val-de-Travers producers] thought they had a case, some history and tradition that meant they thought they could claim it,” Skehan said.

Julien Morand, from Distillerie Morand in Martigny, further South in the Swiss Alps, also welcomed the decision, which allows his family firm to continue labeling its product as absinthe.

Génépi des Alpes - the new GI battleground?

But he warned: “I’m really afraid of this new way of using the GI tactic to protect markets…We are living this trauma again with the appellation ‘Génépi des Alpes’ coming from France and Italy.”

“My region, the Canton of Valais, is also the origin of Génépi and we are in the middle of the Alps. What do we then call our traditional product?” Morand added.

“It’s the same stupidness, like the request about ‘Absinthe’, ‘Fee Verte’ and ‘Bleue’ by the Val-de-Travers,” he said.

Morand also supports spirits EUROPE’s call for an EU definition of absinthe, telling this website it would “define a quality product through the maceration and distillation with a high proportion of the absinthe herb”.

Skehan agreed that the Val-de-Travers Swiss standoff only arose because of the EU Parliament’s refusal to pass legislation in March 2013 that would have defined absinthe as a new spirits category in the EU, after the Commission and member states agreed a common recipe.

Smaller German producers opposed EU effort to define absinthe

He said the Commission had put forward spiritsEUROPE's definition of absinthe – agreed between French, German, Austrian and Italian producers – which was then scuppered by a vote in Parliament.

This was due to last minute opposition from smaller German producers, Skehan added, “who felt they hadn’t been part of our discussions – but whose own recipes were outside of the scope of what we were putting forward”.

Garnering support from influential German MEP Horst Schnellhardt – who hasn’t been returned in the new EU parliamentary intake – Skehan said these distillers were able to defeat the proposal.

He said it was up to the Commission to decide whether to put a new proposal before Parliament – either as a standalone measure or as part of a wider package – over the next five year term.

“We’d still prefer there to be a definition incorporated into the annex of Regulation 110,” Skehan said.

“There’s great value in having diversity, but when you market a product and call it something – we think consumers should have a reasonable sense of what they’re getting,” he added.

No definition for a spirit, no protection!

Noting that spirits are much more regulated in this respect than beer and wine, Skehan said: “We’ve always taken a fairly strict view with the idea that when you put a product on a shelf and call it ‘X’, the consumer can say ‘Ah, I know what’s in the bottle!’

“At least the constituent parts, if not the precise flavors.”

Skehan admits that none of spiritsEUROPE’s other drinks categories are in the same place as Scotch, in terms of having a dedicated legal team with the firepower protect the category from imposters on a global level, but he said this was desirable.

“And the bedrock of having that is the definition,” he added. “If you don’t have a definition you can’t protect anything. Because anyone can make anything they like and call it, say, Absinthe,” he added.

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