War of grape words breaks out between Italy and Australia

Sunday, 29. July 2018 - 15:15

Tony Battaglene/WFA

The long-running on-again, off-again war of words between Australia and Italy over the export of wines to Europe made from Italian indigenous grape varieties grown and produced in Australia, is back on.

First use of the name Prosecco that caused friction. Now the Italians have the Sicilian grape variety, Nero d’Avola in their sights, arguing Australian wine producers and UK wine merchants are misleading consumers by using references to Sicily and Sicilian in their marketing to buyers.

Italy’s anti-fraud agency, the Ispettorato Centrale Qualita e Repressione Frodi dei Prodotti Agroalimentari (ICQRF) has reportedly called upon UK wine merchants to ban the sale of Australian-made Nero d’Avola. The president of Sicilia DOC Consorzio, Antonio Rallo, has also entered into the argument, suggesting that the Australians are capitalising on the recent surge in sales of Sicilian wines.

The war of words comes at a time when Australia and the European Union are in talks to renegotiate their free trade agreement. The first round of talks was held in Brussels two week ago.

 “They [the Italians] are trying to put pressure on, not just on Australia but they also need to pressure their own European Commission who are doing the negotiations, so they can emphasise how important it is to Italy to have a win on this,” says Tony Battaglene, chief executive of the Winemakers’ Federation of Australia. He worries that the separate Australia-EU Wine Trade Agreement will also be incorporated into the trade talks. “There’s no doubt that they will be trying to threaten, coerce, and  put pressure on our government to give up our right to use a number of grape varieties.”

The Nero d’Avola grape hails from around the town of Avola in Sicily, and has been grown in Australia since 2006. Mark Lloyd of Coriole in South Australia’s McLaren Vale region saw the grape’s potential early on, and now makes a few hundred cases. He says London wine bars have been enthusiastic in their support of his wine, adding that he does not make any reference to either Italy or Sicily on his wine labels. “Our story has always been that we’re not trying to copy the Italians,” he says.

Winemaker Stephanie Toole at Mount Horrocks in the Clare Valley sells Nero d’Avola in Britain, and says the only time the question of the grape’s origin comes up is in her cellar door. “No-one is really interested to be honest,” she adds.

Emotions have been running high between Italy and Australia for years over the rise of Italian indigenous grape varieties in Australia. The Prosecco grape was known internationally as a grape variety until 2009 when Italy claimed Prosecco as a European geographical indicator (GI) to protect Italian-made Prosecco, changing the variety’s name to Glera.

Following a legal challenge by the Europeans in 2013, Australia won the right to use the word Prosecco on wines produced for the domestic market, but not for export. Australia won the argument because it had been using the name Prosecco some 10 years before it became a GI.  Mr Battaglene stated last month that Australia’s A$60m ($44.39) Prosecco industry would be destroyed if Australian trade negotiators were to “bow” to European demands.

Australian winemakers have been looking to a range of Mediterranean indigenous grapes for more than a decade, especially those well-suited to hot, dry conditions, in order to counter the effect of climate change. Nero d’Avola was selected by leading Australian nursery, Chalmers, and imported in the late 1990s. The first vines were sold in 2006.

“So far, we’ve sold around 190,000 vines in all winegrowing states, except Tasmania,” says Kim Chalmers, director of Chalmers Viticulture. Chalmers also makes Nero d’Avola wines grown in the Heathcote region of Victoria, and Ms Chalmers says she is careful not to draw comparisons to Italy. “If you look at the Chalmers wine label it actually says that they are Australian wines that pay respect to their continental heritage. I have avoided using the word Europe or Italy or anything else. But saying you can’t call your wine Nero d’Avola when it’s clearly made from Nero d’Avola, is like saying you can’t call your wine Chardonnay.”

King Valley wine marketer, Christian Dal Zotto, son of Otto Dal Zotto who introduced the Prosecco grape to Australia, believes the latest European call for a ban on Australian Nero d’Avola in Britain could have serious ramifications, flowing through to other agricultural products in the latest negotiations over the EU-Australia Free Trade Agreement. “I guess it’s open season on everything,” he says.
Jeni Port