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By John Salvi
July 2006

Seen by an alien

What prompted this article was the very kind invitation by Manuel Maria Lopez Alejandre, Secretary General of the Consejo Regulador Montilla-Moriles, to attend the Conferencia Espanola de Consejos Reguladores (CECRV) de Denominaciones de Origen de Vinos, in Cordoba, from 23 – 25 March.

The title uses the word “alien” advisedly and not the word “foreigner”. This is because, to an Englishman, being confronted with the Spanish Wine Law is rather like I expect it would be if I were asked to attend a conference on Mars!

The Spanish Wine Laws, the German Wine Laws, and while we are at it the European Community Wine Laws, are quite amazingly complicated and complex and I do not think that many growers or shippers will take issue with me if I say that a lawyer is often required to interpret the finer points of the law and perhaps even more so the grey areas of the law – those areas that seem unclear and ambiguous and which one suspects the law-makers have phrased that way intentionally in order to have a perfect escape route in the event of controversy!

This is not helped by the fact that Spain is a country with “Autonomias”. I have never been sure just how many there are but it would seem to this alien that they have a great deal of autonomy (as their name suggests)!! They promulgate, administer and control their own wine laws I believe. Thus it would seem that their laws can be as different from each other as they choose, apart from incorporating the basic Brussels Wine Laws and those of the Spanish State (estadale??). To me this is a bit like the 49 States of America or 50 if you want to count Puerto Rico.

As the alien, and just as an example, I can understand that Rioja is a bigger and more powerful wine than some of the other DOCs. Naturally all red wines are not the same or even similar and thank God for it! However it is confusing to the non-Spaniard to find that there are some 60 DOCs in Spain, several coming under each Autonomy. Each of these DOCs seems to have, indeed does have, its own specifications. That also is understandable. However it is puzzling to find that “Reserva” and “Gran Reserva” require a different minimum length of time in barrel before bottling, and sometimes even a different length of time in bottle before selling. Surely some sort of cohesion could and should be put into this welter of variety, if only to help the poor bewildered consumer outside Spain who thinks that Reserva is the twelfth man on a football team!

Thus, finally, we get to the reason for this meeting that I attended. It would seem that when a DOC goes to see its politicians with a complaint, a problem or a proposal, or to request a law or a change in the law, the politicians immediately say “what do the other DOCs think?” The brilliant idea therefore of the CECRV is to get together, form a strong united body of DOCs, agree what laws and/or changes of law they all want, and then all go to their politicians and request the same thing. This way the politicians of all the different Autonomies will all be faced with the same blanket requests and it is hoped that they will then feel the need to do something about it and will not be able just to ignore or to shelve matters!

This is sensible and pragmatic, even to me! Such universal requests must carry considerable weight. However one of the drawbacks seems to be that not all the DOCs are members, or want to be members, of the CECRV. Some of the largest and most important are still absent – particularly Rioja. At the meeting in Cordoba, exactly half of Spain’s DOCs were present – 30 of them. Mostly these were medium or small DOCs, but certainly not all. La Mancha was present, who has over 300 members and covers many thousands of hectares of vineyard, according to its President. They carry a great deal of weight and responsibility. The CECRV must persuade other major DOCs to join them as soon as possible.

So what is it that these chaps want? This alien was eager to know. What are the joint needs and requests of a Consortium of DOCs? They told me that firstly and most importantly, indeed vitally for the future of Spanish Viticulture, they are asking their administrations, their politicians and their Autonomias to give them support, a great deal more support than up until now, in their dealings with the Organización Commun Del Mercado. Nobody can argue with the good sense of this – not even an Englishman or an alien! They want Brussels to push very hard for the protection of appellations at the next OCM meeting.

Three of the protected names, or names that should without doubt be protected, are Montilla-Moriles, Jerez and Condado de Huelva. Most unfortunately a recent law, only some six months old, concerning biological products, including wine, has restricted the use of the term “crianza biologica” to wines certified as biological by the officially established bio-regulatory bodies. This is a serious blow to the three above wines, made on the “flor” system, or what we in England call the “veil”, as they have always used this term. Not to be able to do so will be a serious impediment. The 30 DOCs present were unanimous in agreeing to see their politicians about this.

Also recent negotiations with the USA, very recently, indeed in March this year in London, led to an unsatisfactory agreement by which, although the EU accepted USA oenological practices and methods of analysis, the USA continued to refuse to restrict or suppress twelve what they term as “semi-generic” names on their USA home market. These twelve include “Sherry” as well as “Champagne, Burgundy, Chablis”, etc. It is said that there is more American “Chablis” sold in the States than the entire production of the genuine French area and appellation of Chablis! This agreement, known as the “Wine Accord”, is furiously contested and the CECRV wants it changed. All members were in agreement here.
In addition, at this meeting, it was agreed by all, unanimously, to request the continued ban on the use of oak chips in quality wine (VQPRD). These are wines that carry appellations. There is no objection to their use for table wines. This is less acceptable to this alien as he feels that it is better to use oak chips well than to use barrels badly! Whatever the right of it, the members of the CECRV feel strongly about it and propose to expel from their consortium any member who does not uphold this tenet.

Finally, the assembly agreed unanimously to support FIVIN (Fundacion para la Investigacion de Vino), whose task is to investigate the benefits to health of different specific wines. The alien wholeheartedly agrees that this is vital in the face of the powerful, rich and totally warped, biased and bigoted anti-alcohol lobby of today.

Even an “alien” can see that these are major and far reaching problems and anything that CECRV can do to bring pressure to bear on their politicos, on the Autonomias, on the State or upon Brussels, will be helpful to the wine world throughout Europe. It will be warmly welcomed by Great Britain, a tiny producer with a mere 2,000 Hectares of vines, who with hopeless but charismatic expectancy, has requested Brussels to allow their Seyval, a pure hybrid, to produce quality VQPRD wine!

The CECRV started up a few years ago, more or less as a friendly get-together of the 59 Consejos Reguladores, or at least those of them who wished to get together and get to know each other and each others’ problems. From there it has developed into something much more serious as they have become aware of how very many extremely important things there are to do and how they have the unique possibility of doing some of these things with a measure of success. This meeting was a crucial one, which is probably why the alien was invited to attend it. A serious organisation has now taken shape, with a permanent committee structure. It would be wonderful if France could achieve the sort of cooperation that Spain has done, but this is perhaps a utopian dream!!

They will therefore now have regular meetings to discuss all matters placed on the agenda, by their members, and then come to a decision by debate, discussion and vote. After this each Consejo will approach their politicians. They feel that they are now in a position to bring their full weight to bear upon the authorities. Each DOC is no longer a single voice crying in the wilderness. This is a huge step forward.

It is possible, nay probable, that most of the readers here know all about all this already and find this whole spiel unnecessary and boring, however others may find it refreshing to hear the way that an alien sees it and perhaps above all to know that Spain, and especially the CECRV, are showing the way and setting an example, from which other countries, such as France and Italy, can learn much and would do well to follow. Well done the CECRV!

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