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You Can't Call Your Wine That Anymore

We live in a world dominated by brands, a marketplace where name and image can make the difference between stunning success and dismal failure. In a consumer world driven by media messages, advertising, and competition for eyeballs and mindshare it's no wonder that people are so protective of the names of their wines. They have to be.

But things really start to get funky when we get into the world where a wine's name is often the same as the place it is grown or the varietal it is made from, or both.

The winegrowers of the Mosel Saar-Ruwer region voluntarily opted to shorten the legal name of their region to Mosel to make it more accessible to wine consumers, though there are a lot of people up in arms about the decision. Some feel it will be harmful, and ultimately lead to the devaluing of the wine and the place it comes from.

Decisions about what a wine is called aren't always easy to make, and many aren't even voluntary. When court judgments do come into play, the more straightforward of these situations end up being like the recent decision against the Bronco Wine Company, who wasn't allowed to call their wine Napa Creek because none of the grapes came from Napa. And theoretically (only because this is done by trade delegation agreement not by national law) wineries in the United States can no longer use words

Sometimes, though, the wrangling over who can name a wine what takes on a ridiculous air. As of March 2007 it will no longer be legal for winegrowers in Northeastern Italy to make a wine called Tocai Friulano. Instead it must simply be called Friulano.

And why has the Tocai disappeared? Because the Hungarians, who have been producing a wine known as Tokai, or Tokaji, for hundreds of years, think that they own the name. And presumably they are worried that somehow, they'll lose some customers in confusion.

Never mind that Tocai is the Italian name for the Sauvignonasse varietal, and has been for a long time (centuries?). Never mind that the Italians spell it differently than most of the Hungarians. Never mind that the wine is a nearly-colorless, dry, aromatic white (instead of a sweet, thick golden dessert wine). Oh, and it hardly matters that the Italians have been making it for decades and it is the most widely planted varietal in the Friuli region, right?

In total, blatant disregard for all of this, a European judge recently ruled in favor of Hungary's claim that they had exclusive rights to any wine name resembling Tokai, and appeals by Italian organizations have been denied.

In my mind, this is completely ridiculous, and well beyond the bounds of rationality. Read the full story, and when you're done, go out and buy some nice Tocai Friulano in solidarity with the winemakers of Friuli.

Comments (27)

10.14.06 at 11:52 PM

My favorite example: the town of Champagne...in Switzerland. They've been making wine there a longer than there's been a methode champenoise. They recently (within the last few years) petitioned to be able to call their (still white) wines Champagne, but I think it got declined.

David wrote:
10.15.06 at 6:53 AM

I do not agree with the motivation of the ruling, the previous comment is a great example, because the purpose should be to protect the original and most well known product and most importantly the consumer from false and misleading advertising.

I do agree with the move by the EU to define products, methods and naming conventions thus reducing confusion in the end-market. Unfortunately a great wine got a raw deal, but the general tendency for clarity is a good one.

I think the Hungarians made a poor decision to take this on. In a few years their inferior products will no longer be purchased "by mistake".

10.15.06 at 8:39 AM

Despite the fact that South Africa has been making excellent wines for the past 350 years, a lot of wines that we have been producing over the centuries have had to be re-named e.g. we may not use the "Rhone" appelation on our labels. As a result, our vineyards have become very inventive and the wine Goats du Roam, was the result.

Similarly we have the situation of not being allowed to use the term "Chateau" on a label - as a result we now have Shatot Planque and Shatot Plinque being produced by Slaley, one of our top estates from Stellenbosch.

Shannon wrote:
10.15.06 at 9:31 AM

I don't give a fig about Franzia, but the news about Tocai is pretty shocking. I lived in Venice for a while, and practically every wine bar has Tocai by the glass, of which I drank thousands of glasses. I also lived in Budapest for a while, and I never drank Tokaj there. What a lame ruling.

Alder wrote:
10.15.06 at 11:33 AM


Thanks for the comments. What's the deal with the Chateau thing? Why is that illegal?

10.17.06 at 1:33 AM

Further to my comments on the names affecting the South African wine industry it is important to note that South Africa has signed a wide-ranging trade pact with the European Union (EU), which South African Minister of Trade and Industry Alec Erwin described as "the most comprehensive economic agreement" the country has ever concluded with "any other partner."

But several of South Africa's smaller regional trading partners are likely to be hard hit by revenue losses and other repercussions of the new arrangement, concluded with the EU on 26 March some five years ago.

Following two days of intense discussions in March, the final barriers to reaching agreement were swept away when Spain and Portugal agreed to drop their long-standing objections to the use of the terms "sherry" and "port" by South African fortified wine producers in their domestic market for a further 12 years.

The two EU states argued throughout the trade talks that the terms should be reserved exclusively for fortified wines produced in the regions of Jerez, Spain, and Oporto, Portugal.

Under the eleventh-hour compromise, this contentious issue is to be revisited at the end of the trade pact's phase-in period, when "new denominations" for those products will be jointly agreed by South Africa and the EU. Clearly displeased that the final deal basically grants the EU a right to veto the use of "port" and "sherry" on South African wine labels, the South African Port Producers' Association quickly announced its intention to challenge the decision by taking the case to the World Trade Organization.

Lingering concerns of Spain, Portugal, France, Italy and Greece that the EU's terms in the agricultural sector were too generous had also delayed conclusion of the deal.

South African fortified wine producers are not alone in harbouring concerns about the deal's impact on South Africa's economy.

The upshot of all of this is that South African wine producers are having to seek new names for certain of their products, despite having been in the forefront of producing fine wines for 350 years.

For example when the 12 year period rears it's ugly head, South African Port will have to be Cape Vintage Port or some such other name. One producer has even registered the name "Starboard" instead of Port.

There are also serious objections about the name Grappa.

The French have many wine growing appelations and are particularly protectionistic about them. South Africa can no longer use the name Champaigne and so the "Methode Cap Classique" has come into being.

Nothing to do with the EU, but we even have a Shatot Planque (red) and a Shatot Plinque (rose), to get away from the word Chateau!

Ryan Scott wrote:
10.17.06 at 6:19 AM

Shouldn't they be focusing their time and money on producers committing fraud, ie, bottling the same wine under 3 different labels and going after different people w/ different tastes...

V B A wrote:
10.17.06 at 10:32 AM

Tokaj is the name of a small Hungarian city which is the heart of the Tokaj vine region. Tokaj or Tokaji (means "... from Tokaj)has been the most famos Hungarian wine "brand" for hundreds of years.

Italian, French, Australian and US winemakes started to use this name after the Hungarian Tokaji dessert wine had become world famous.

What would you say if a Hungarian wine region started to write Napa, Bordeaux etc. on their labels?

In vino veritas! wrote:
10.17.06 at 12:16 PM

There are so few things that a Hungarian citizen can proud of nowadays, and one of them is surely this wine. Why would you all so sceptical about our right to use this name for a wine from a specifical geographical location? This is just a chance for my small country to show itself to the world.

farley wrote:
10.17.06 at 12:28 PM

This topic is fascinating to me, esp. when it comes to Champagne and Port, though I didn't know about the issue with Tocai.

But I recently had someone tell me that sparkling wine in CA can be called champagne due to CA rootstocks helping save vines in France. I didn't believe it (the source did not seem reliable). But does anyone know anything about this?

Daniel wrote:
10.17.06 at 12:29 PM

Being Hungarian, I also don't support this decision. The italian Tocai's spelling is quite different, as stated.
However, I must say some words in defense of our Tokaji wines, which ARE great, and a true speciality created with a unique, historical method.
(No wonder Shannon didn't drink Tokaji in Budapest, since it's not a wine you "have by the glass".)

Alder wrote:
10.17.06 at 1:26 PM


Thanks for commenting. I agree, if someone started calling their wine Tokaj or Tokaji there would be a problem. But that is not the name of the wine. The name of the wine is Tocai Friulano. There is a big difference, as Daniel points out.

Alder wrote:
10.17.06 at 1:32 PM


Thanks for the comments. This wine is surely something to be proud of. But in my opinion, there is a difference between taking pride in something, and making life difficult for others who are making a wine that has a name that is just SIMILAR to the product you are proud of.

Adam wrote:
10.17.06 at 1:40 PM

You should buy three glasses of Tokajis to celebrate this issue, not the italian/french one.

pooeblo wrote:
10.17.06 at 3:22 PM

As a Hungarian, I think it is a smart decision not to call a wine in a name that comes close to Tokaji. Tokaji is a sweet Hungarian wine and that all there is. I just read that those who started to grow Tocai in Italy were getting this from Tokaj, so their original intention was to make something that makes it similar. And even though they ended up creating a different type, it is still confusing for less experienced travellers to find out the truth. It is also quite emberrassing to sell a Tokaji by the glass. This Hungarian wine is never sells from the glass in our country. You can only drinking it if you can afford a bottle. No question that Hungarians do not want to have the name of Tokaji to be associated with cheap wine. This might actually be Hungary's most famous wine region today.

I also support that the champagne, cognac, parmeggiano reggiano, feta, etc names could only be used for products coming from the region where they were originally made.

whyn wrote:
10.17.06 at 9:49 PM


concerning the court rulings: it is rather silly to take out your anger on the issue of Tokaj-Tokai and the Hungarian producers. you all should have been a bit more awake when the entire world started producing "sparkling wines". that set the wheels in motion. concerning a similar decision Hungarian producers for instance cannot use the name "Portói" anymore for Portugieser - even though you can drink "Portói" anywhere in bars in Budapest and noone would ever have made a mistake to confuse it with Porto - the two thing are not spelled the same way, and are very different in character as well. Hungarian producers were under themselves also as they were selling big time from this stuff too.

as far as calling the entire Tokaji variety a gold yellow sweet dessert wine is concerned: it is just simply not the case. it is not only 'Aszú' that is being produced there, there IS popular dry wine there as well, please check out Furmint and Szamorodni to start with.

if this business with protecting geographical names started, you must put up with the entire business of it, or get rid of it altogether, champagne, porto, tokaj, no matter. as far as i am concerned, probably this would be the best thing. however, since it is not up to us to decide on this matter, i think it is rather hypocritical to start bullying a small Hungarian wine region for doing what everyone has been doing - especially when half of it is on French hands by now anyway (isn't this timing interesting anyway)

Alder wrote:
10.17.06 at 10:31 PM


Thanks for reminding us that there are dry wines made in the Tokaji region (I have reviewed one here on Vinography), but I can't help imagining that this whole to-do is really about Tokaji Azu. Your points about sparkling wine are well taken, but that is not what we're talking about. Those refer to the blatant use of a place name, rather than just a similar one.

Thanks for mentioning the Portoi issue in Hungary. I wasn't aware of that, but I think it's a very good analogue to this situation -- an equally stupid. I think Hungary should be able to make a wine called Portoi and Italy should be able to make a wine called Tocai Friulano.

whyn wrote:
10.17.06 at 11:11 PM

Dear Alder

I agree: the entire issue is getting more and more out of hand concerning naming and protection of names. However, this is a worldwide tendency and you behave responsibly as a decision maker if you follow it - you have no other choice, I am afraid, if you do not go for it then you do not represent the tax payer very well.

Otherwise Tokaj (the region) had to fight a number of battles recently concerning these issues - some companies in the Ukraine started producing something that is similar to Aszú (very cheap copies, bad quality, but the intention is clear to copy Aszú), and a long battle had to be fought with Slovakia that they should only allow wines to be called Tokaji that are produced on the historical region (a smaller section of the wine region expands over the state border - despite of this Tokaji was made on a much larger area there which raised quality issues as well). If you ask me, this might have been the real cause for seeking protection - not some marketing issue concerning the Aszú; mind you, you're right, it is not bad for that either...

Whoever wrote:
10.17.06 at 11:32 PM

Tocai _is_ close to Tokaji. How would you pronounce it? Many people just hear about the wine, and may have no idea how to spell the name. (Tokaji is pronounced the same was as Tokai, Tocai, Tokay, Tocay, etc would be )

VBA wrote:
10.18.06 at 1:04 AM

Dear Alder,

okay, there's some difference, but a very-very small one.

In Hungary there are so called "Chinese markets" where you can buy sport brands like Adidos, Adios, Nikke, Nice, Rebok, Rebook, Rabok, Filla etc. Tocai, Tokay, Tocay it's the same thing in wine, it's on the border of falsification.

We are a Hungarian wine maker family, we could create a new wine called Nappa Budapest or Bordox Balaton, of course the pronounciation would differ from the original. What would you say?

Alder wrote:
10.18.06 at 8:48 AM


In the case of all those sneakers, they are TRYING to copy the original and get sales based on the recognition of the name. That is not the case with this wine. If they were really trying to "captialize" on the Tocaji reputatation or "steal customers" why would the Italians call it Tocai Friulano? Which doesn't sound anything like Toakaji Furmint or Tokaji Aszu....

I think the examples of Nappa Budapest or Bordox Balaton are great. I don't find anything wrong with them, and I'd be surprised if the Napa Valley Vintners Association did either. Not sure about the Boredeaux folks, they seem to have less of a sense of humor.

It's really the big corporations that I exepect to be outrageously paranoid about such things. Someone told me the other day that Gallo tried to sue another province in Italy via the international courts to stop calling its variety Moscato di Giallo because they think somehow people will confuse the Italian wine with their California label. How silly is that?

In my mind there's a difference, and it's fairly clear and easy to see, between a ripoff ('Champagne' produced in California, versus the real thing) and a partial similarity in name that has occurred for historical or cultural reasons.

Alder wrote:
10.18.06 at 4:49 PM

As for the pronunciation of Tocai, it may sound the same in Hungarian, but I believe the Italians and the English pronounce it "tohk-eye" not "tohk-ay"


Greg wrote:
10.23.06 at 10:01 AM

Alder - some people pronounce it that way (ay), not all. I agree about not making life difficult for others. I suppose that if the Hungarians wanted to make Kee-antee and the Italians were ok w that, they wouldn't mind too much about the tokay thing. It's just hypocritical for them not to respect the place & "brand" of another.

At one point remember,"hermitage" was a name for syrah. Can you imagine the rukus if the Aussies used that today?

matteo wrote:
10.26.06 at 9:39 AM

I actually work for a producer in
Friuli and, of course, we make Tocai as does every other producer in
Friuli. There's no doubt about it, this ruling is bordering absurdity. However, here in Europe we make our living by identifying place (just thing that a Sangiovese outside of Tuscany can retail for $6, a Sangiovese in the Chianti region goes for $20 and a Sangiovese from Brunello starts at $40). Unfortunately our Tocai is getting the short-end of the stick in this right ruling.

But perhaps this will give us an opportunity to let more people know about Tocai (which will now be called Friulano after the region). It seems like few people on this site knew about Tocai, go out and give it whirl and see if you'll fall in love with it like so many other people have. Good ones to start of with are Bastianich, Livio Felluga and Marco Felluga, but there are so many more that are available in the STates

A wrote:
10.27.06 at 5:08 AM

Alder, just for the sake of accuracy: Tokaj is also pronounced in Hungarian as tohk-eye, not as tohk-ay.

Alder wrote:
10.27.06 at 8:28 AM

Thanks for the clarification, I wasn't aware of that.

ht wrote:
08.14.07 at 8:52 AM

put it in another example.

you produce shoes.
and the brand name is "adibas bla".

what do you think, what would adidas do?

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