Are Tokay and Tocai really a threat to Hungary's Tokaji wine?

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Hungary, Eu

EU Advocate General Francis Jacobs has said that the ban on the use
of the name 'Tocai' for Italian wine should be upheld. The
announcement reignites arguments surrounding Geographical
Indications (GIs) and the right to label wine by grape variety,
writes Kim Hunter Gordon.

As part of the agreements for Hungary's accession to the EU, the governments of Italy and France agreed to rename wines called Tokay d'Alsace and Tocai Friulano, which the Hungarian government claims are too similar that of the world famous sweet wine Tokaji Aszu, produced in the Tokaji region of Hungary.

The Alsacian authorities had responded to the agreement by adding the grape variety to their label, making it Tokay-Pinot Gris d'Alsace, but this approach is not an option for the Friulians as Tokai is the name of the grape used in the wine. The Friuli-Venezia Giulia region in Italy has appealed against the ruling at the European Court of Justice.

Having investigated the appeal, the Advocate General last week declared that, in his opinion, the agreement should be upheld and that Italian Tocai could not qualify as a geographical indication. "It has no such special quality, reputation or characteristic that is attributable to its geographic origin,"​ he said. EU Courts of Justice usually uphold the opinion of the Advocate General, although it is not officially binding.

The case is not as straight forward as others involving the allegedly inappropriate use of wine names - such as Bordeaux or Champagne - as the three wines in question are all very different and the French and Italian versions are not attempting to cash in on the reputation of the Hungarian variety by imitating its style.

Tokay d'Alsace is a light, dry white wine made entirely from Pinot Gris (Pinot Grigio), while the Italian Tocai Friulano is an aromatic dry white made entirely from the Tocai grape (known as Sauvignon Vert in French and Sauvignonasse in Spanish).

The Hungarian Tokaji Aszu, by comparison, is an easily distinguishable desert wine made using varying percentages of botrytised (noble rot) Furmint and Haréslvelü grapes. The wine is also renowned for its cellaring potential. Bottles that are centuries old have been known have been known to improve.

Perhaps the reason that the Hungarian government pressed for the protection is because Tokaji has traditionally been labelled as 'Tokay' on bottles destined for export. Whether this translation of the Hungarian name should be protected is debateable. Recently leaked details​ of a World Trade Organisation (WTO) ruling suggested that the WTO would back EU's policy for protecting GIs but not translated versions - for example, Budweis as a German translation of Ceske Budejovice, as highlighted in the case involving Budweiser beer.

A ruling in line with the Advocate General's suggestion could also raise further problems by effectively prohibiting Italian winemakers from labelling their wine with the name of the grape it is made from. Friuilian wine producers argue that being able to use the grape variety name to market wine is their right, according to the EU Charter.

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