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Whose wine label is it anyway?

Posted by Helen Saturday, May 01, 2004

French and Italian wine producers are getting a taste of their own medicine from those sassy newcomers. The Hungarians, producers of the traditional Tokaj wine have demanded that the Alsacians stop calling one of their wines Tokay. This is particularly painful, since France is, as the Wall Street Journal Europe puts it, “the pioneer in protecting geographical names associated with produce, such as Champagne and Cognac”.

The world-famous, centuries-old Tokaj is, indeed, produced in the Tokaj region in northern Hungary. It is also true that Hungarian grapes were planted in Alsace by Lazare de Schwendi a Germanic (or possibly Hungarian) general in the 1560s, thus initiating the fine tradition of Alsatian wines. But the Pinot Gris wine that still bears the name Tokay on it is no longer made from the Furmint grapes but from different Burgundian ones. Still, the name Tokay sounds good. Unfortunately, it will have to be dropped. In 1993 the EU gave Hungary the right of it and allowed a 13 year transition period, which will expire in 2006.

At least the Alsacians are going along with the ruling and changing the labels, though it is causing some difficulty with the marketing. The Italians, who produce something called Tocai, that bears no relation to the original wine but whose name can be deemed to be confusing, are refusing to change anything or to negotiate till 2007.

Then there is Slovakia. (As far as the Hungarians are concerned there always is and always was Slovakia but the EU is only just beginning to learn about all those little difficulties the new members have had with each other for centuries.) There were many border changes in that part of the world in the last century and in the last one of those two villages of the Tokaj region have found themselves in Slovakia. So now the Slovaks also lay claim to the name. The EU has awarded the name to Hungary for obvious historical reasons. However, sensibly or, perhaps, foolhardily, it told the Hungarians and the Slovaks to settle the problem among themselves.