The E.U. wants to ban Australian winemakers from using the term, but Australia had been using it before it was protected.

By Mike Pomranz
Updated January 16, 2020
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Prosecco made a name for itself as an inexpensive alternative to Champagne. In fact, in the past especially, colloquially referring to Prosecco as champagne was extremely common. Such is the power of Champagne: The term is often used generically for similar sparkling wines. But now that Prosecco has become so popular that people ask for it by name, the Italian sparkling wine is facing the same problem: companies wanting to co-opt Prosecco's success by using the term. (Even Pringles!) Oh, the painful irony!

Specifically, this week, we found out that the Australian government had funded an AU$100,000 research grant to look into the validity of Italy and the E.U.ropean Union claiming the term "prosecco" as a protected geographic indication, the Australian site Food Processing reports. As the rules stand now, any "prosecco" sold in the E.U. must come from the Prosecco region of Italy. Additionally, the E.U. can seek to protect this term with other countries as conditions of trade agreements. All of this is problematic for Australia, which reportedly currently exports about AU$60 million worth of wine labeled "prosecco."

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But here's a major difference between Prosecco and Champagne: Unlike Champagne, which is made from a variety of grapes, the primary grape used to make Prosecco is known as Prosecco—or at least it was. When the term "prosecco" became protected in 2009, the E.U. officially rechristened the Prosecco grape with its historical name, Glera—essentially to further protect the term.

It's easy to see why places like Australia, which had already been growing Prosecco grapes for years, were like, what the hell? "We hope this investment strengthens our argument that Australia's grape and wine producers must be able to compete on a level playing field with other wine-producing nations," Tony Battaglene, chief executive of Australian Grape & Wine, was quoted as saying. "Many businesses have made significant investments in Prosecco plantings, infrastructure and branding, and all are acutely aware of the E.U.ropean Union's desire to stop them from using the name. Given this, and the widespread interest in GIs in the context of the proposed Australia—E.U. Free Trade Agreement, it is clear this research is in the national interest."

The debate is more than sour grapes: Australia predicts its Prosecco exports could be worth a half billion Australian dollars over the next decade. "If Prosecco is the name of a grape variety and not a geographical indication, the prohibition of its use in trademarks on Australian Prosecco would be likely to contravene Article 20 of the TRIPS Agreement, and Article 2.1 of the Technical Barriers to Trade Agreement," added Professor Mark Davison, part of the research team from Monash University's Faculty of Law which received the grant.

Needless to say, Italy's Prosecco Consortium isn't feeling these arguments. Innocente Nardi, the group's president, recently told The Drinks Business that "the authenticity of our product must be protected and guaranteed." He continued, "Our denomination has over fifty years of history … and it is thanks to the know-how of the producers and the vocation of the territory that this product has been able to achieve international success." Nardi also pointed to "the recent recognition of the Prosecco hills of Conegliano Valdobbiadene as a UNESCO World Heritage Site" as evidence of Italy's attachment to Prosecco.

Interestingly, a Prosecco Consortium spokesperson also told The Drinks Business, "It is not the first time that Australia opposes to the recognition of Prosecco PDO and, as in the past, even now we consider having enough well-founded arguments in defense of our Designation and of the consumers' good faith, which link Prosecco to Italy." However, the site Food Processing states that Australia actually won that previous dispute with the E.U. back in 2013.

So what are we to make of all this? Personally, I'm going to avoid taking sides and just grab a glass of Champagne instead. Or at least I'll call it "champagne" so I don't have to think about it.