11/30/11: The Day the DOCs Stood Still

After frenetic jockeying for position in 2011, the music stopped

Posted July 31, 2013

Clock tower in BresciaIn 2008, the European Union officially began the process of “normalizing” agricultural policy throughout the EU. Translation: Regulatory control of agriculture was to be taken away from the member countries and consolidated within the European Commission instead. For the wine industry, this meant that national governments—let’s say, Rome—would no longer have the final say over the approval of protected status for wine regions and the rules that govern those regions. Rome would still have to approve proposed changes, but the ultimate consent would come from Brussels, starting at the end of 2011.

Based on decades of practical experience with such things, the Italian wine industry spent a couple of years ignoring this process, half expecting it to be abandoned or changed significantly before anything ever came of it. But by 2010 or so, it started to look like these changes might actually happen. Knowing that adding another layer of bureaucracy on the other side of the continent would make getting authorization for future changes even harder than it already was, many of the producer consortia realized that they should get moving. The clock just might be running out on that planned update to the local wine rules.

Another facet of this was that the European Commission was interested in certifying only a single level of quality wine—the Protected Denomination of Origin—rather than the two levels that most countries had been using. In Italy since the 1960s, quality wine-producing areas had aspired first to be recognized as DOCs and then someday to move up to the more prestigious DOCG level. A few dozen had made it to DOCG, but in the EU scheme, they were going to be lumped back in with the rest as DOPs.

To avoid a riot, the Commission agreed to allow producers to continue using the old “traditional” terms—in Italy’s case, DOC and DOCG—in lieu of DOP on wine labels. But since the Commission was not in the DOC/DOCG business, newly established denominations of the future could look forward only to DOP status. There would be no new DOCGs.

With the deadline looming, applications for new regions and changes to old ones starting piling into the Ministry of Agriculture in Rome. Approvals were given with uncharacteristic speed, and the number of DOCGs jumped. Twenty new DOCGs were created in 2011 alone, bringing the total to 73. About two dozen new DOCs were created in 2011, as well. Beyond that, nearly every denomination made changes to its existing disciplinare, the defining document for the wine region that specifies the area’s boundaries, the types of grapes that can be grown there and how they can be grown, the types of wine that can be made there and how they can be made, labeling requirements, and more.

Some regions that had been IGTs became DOCs. IGT Sicilia became the Sicilia DOC, and was in turn replaced by IGT Terre Siciliane. Some freshly minted DOCs were straightforward new entries, such as Ortona in Abruzzo. Others were expanded versions of existing denominations; the well-established Moscato di Siracusa DOC, for instance, went through a metamorphosis, adding red wines and becoming the new and improved Siracusa DOC. A lot of denominations used the opportunity either to simplify their rules, perhaps removing some grape varieties from the required blend, or to include some international varieties that had not been allowed before. A few decided to complicate things, adding several new styles of wine or creating subregions. One particularly odd example is Calabria’s Terre di Cosenza DOC, which cobbled together four previous DOCs and three IGTs without coordinating their production rules; the seven earlier entities simply became seven subzones with entirely different grapes and requirements.

Of course, some DOCs moved up to DOCG. The Alta Langa DOC in Piemonte, established in 2002, became a DOCG in 2011. In most cases, a single wine or set of wines from a long-standing DOC spun off from the fold as a DOCG while the rest remained where they were. In Puglia, for example, the Bombino Nero, Nero di Troia Riserva, and Rosso Riserva wines of the Castel del Monte DOC became three separate DOCGs. Likewise, Rosazzo, a subzone of the Friuli Colli Orientali DOC, became a DOCG. And Amarone della Valpolicella, one of Italy’s greatest wines, at long last became a DOCG in 2010.

Finally, the feeding frenzy had to stop. On November 30, 2011, the Ministry of Agriculture closed the books and sent the list of 403 DOCs and DOCGs to Brussels as Italy’s formal submission to the new Common Market Organization for wine. One can only imagine that a lot of the ministry personnel then took long, well-deserved vacations as silence descended on the disciplinare approval offices in Rome.

There has been some rustling of activity since then, but not much. Only a few disciplinari have been officially modified in 2012 or 2013; a number of others have had minor corrections made. The biggest proposal in the last year has been Chianti Classico’s request to add a new category above Riserva—Gran Selezione—to its disciplinare, and the EU officials working on that have made glacial progress; a decision is now due in September 2013. The resolution on that proposal will be a strong signal about the Commission’s willingness to alter or create denominations in the future. But no matter how that turns out, we will never again see anything like the whirlwind of 2011.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

[For an epilogue to this story, see DOC Count Up to 332—ed.]

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