Turning point for German wine: the new wine law

Bottles of Günther Jauch's wine
© Dr. Hermann Pilz

Wine is more than just an alcoholic beverage. It was even celebrated in the Bible, which made more than a thousand references to wine. The ancient Greeks and Romans praised the god of wine. Furthermore, wine has always been a managed asset. Proper designation would indicate where the wine originated, where the grapes were grown, who produced the wine as well as its quality and characteristics. Counterfeit and doctored wines were a problem in many countries over the centuries. The state therefore kept a watchful eye on wine producers and – in keeping with Prussian tradition – shortly before the foundation of the German Reich, it enlisted an army of civil servants to begin regulating every detail of wine growing, wine production and marketing – the start of Germanic wine law.

To this day, there is a special wine law for the cultural asset of wine, aside from the general food legislation that applies to most other foodstuffs. The original German wine law, whose fundamental features have existed for more than one hundred years, has been modified and tailored to the European legal system in countless regulations and guidelines since the formation of the EU. Today, the Basic Regulation (VO 1308/2013) regulates the essential features of the EU law in a common agricultural market system (CAP), Regulation (EC) 607/2009 regulates the labeling of wines, traditional terms and protection of geographical indications, and Regulation (EC) 606/2009 regulates permitted oenological practices.

Mediterranean wine countries as forerunners

The major Mediterranean wine countries – first and foremost France, Italy and Spain, all of which still account for half of the world’s wine production – set the pace for the EU in terms of wine law. Their legislation is based on the dominance of origin, and that means more than simply the source of the grapes. Regions such as Champagne, Bordeaux, Burgundy as well as Rioja, Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino, Barolo and, more recently, Prosecco are the major role models. These are not just regions where the grapes are grown for specific types of wines; they also represent a wine style and profile for the wines designated as “profile wines.” Producers in the Champagne region thereby profit from the legendary reputation of the region and obtain a higher price than if they were to sell their wines or sparkling wines without the prestigious designation. The label “Champagne”  sends an internationally recognized message and is associated with luxury and exclusive taste – something for which the customer is glad to pay more.

From German to Romanic wine law

In 2008, the European states agreed that the future CAP should distinguish between different wine categories depending on their origins. Instead of the earlier German system with a horizontal vineyard designation hierarchy with everything from growing region to area to collective and individual vineyards and quality grades (determined by must weight and thus sugar content) ranging from table and local wine to quality and special Prädikat wines – the Romanic system would now apply.

In principle, any winemaker in Germany could cultivate any vineyard and use any grape variety to produce a quality wine or even a Prädikat wine variety: Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese to Trockenbeerenauslese and ice wine. Many features were contradictory, which is why the Prädikat and vineyard designations of today no longer carry the meaning they once had.

In the future, many of the traditional terms, which are still common today in German wine law, will play a subordinate role and only have particular relevance when used in the scope of a defined wine profile. Many German winemakers and their associations as well as officials refused to believe how extensively the rulings, which were adopted in 2008 and took effect in 2009, would change wine law in Germany. After years of stagnation and apparent calm, an intensive discussion about the new law has erupted and people are gradually realizing that there is no getting around the changes, and that they will ultimately present opportunities.

Necessary changes

German quality wines made from Dornfelder grapes, which are offered at discount stores for less than 2 euros for a 0.75-liter bottle, make it very clear that the previous system is less than suited for conveying a wine’s orientation and perceived value to consumers.

On the other hand, TV presenter Günther Jauch uses his good name to promote a “German wine” with no indication of its grape variety or place of origin – in other words, the lowest grade on the hierarchy – for 5.99 euros per bottle at discount chain Aldi. This bottle used to be called a table wine, but that quality no longer formally exists since the reform of the EU wine market organization. More than anything else, this example makes it clear that the German legal system so far has missed the mark over the years.

The new European system is very different. It differentiates between wines without indication of origin that can be produced as a blend of wines from various European countries or an individual country and wines with protected geographical indications (PGIs). The next higher level includes the wines of protected designations of origin (PDOs), which generally correspond with the previous quality wines from the individual German wine-growing regions. This makes it possible for German producers to make profile wines such as those in France, Italy or Spain.

New wine law: what will change

The changes in the legal system go hand in hand with a fundamental change in the organizational structures to date. While government bodies and the federal and state ministries have so far been responsible for wine-related regulations in Germany and adopted them in compliance with the earlier European basic rules for wine production and marketing, it is now the producers themselves who are making the rules with the creation of requirement specifications. In the future, the producers will establish requirements specifying which vineyards, which oenological practices and with which profile the different wines can be produced and marketed.

With the introduction of the Romanic wine law, the entire organizational structure of the wine industry in Germany will change in the long run. Known in France, Spain and Italy as Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin, the Consejo Regulador or the Consorzio Tutela, in Germany these organizations will be known as protection associations and trade associations.

Protection associations are necessary when producers from a region or an area want to have a wine registered with protected geographical indications (PGIs) or a wine with protected designations of origin (PDOs) and want to produce and sell the profile wine in the future with the blessing of the European Union. To do this, the partners involved have to meet certain requirements, such as having a minimum share of area and production, and establish the new rules of the game in joint resolutions.

The new protection associations, which were founded in the winegrowing regions of Wuerttemberg, the Palatinate and, soon, Rheinhessen, can then register the designation to be protected and make the rules for production and marketing. The Bonn-based Federal Agency for Agriculture and Food (Bundesanstalt für Ernährung und Landwirtschaft, BLE) is responsible for verifying that they are in compliance with EU rules. They become legally binding through their adoption by the European Union in the e-Bacchus list.

And the state?

A final conclusion has not yet been reached as to whether the state will remove itself entirely from the wine-relevant regulations or will in the end keep some individual regulations under its control. But in the future, it will be only the protection associations that will determine in principle what, where and how is produced, labeled and marketed.

The final approval will remain with the EU Commission in Brussels. However, the new protection associations are limited to the protection of the relevant designation and its wine and, in the long run, have a rather transitional status. The trade associations have a much different job. In a certain way, they organize the market.

According to EU law, trade associations can adopt generally binding agreements such as in Italy and France if three-quarters of the production and the area of the region (PDO or PGI) belong to the association (the trade association, that is). They have the right to intervene considerably in the market and even to block parts of the harvest for marketing. Or, as a more widely known practice, to establish grape prices before the harvest, as is done every year in Champagne by the Comité Interprofessionel du Vin de Champagne, which is binding for all wine makers.

Big changes for German winemaking

A new era has thus begun for the German winemaking industry. The discussion has just begun concerning what and who will shape it and what new profile wines will be created in Germany. Trade associations are much more comprehensive, can actively advertise and of course have much easier access to financial resources in Brussels for marketing and structural assistance.

The previous German framework for financing advertising with statutory dues, as it is financed and practiced by the German wine institute DWI and the local wine-marketing associations in various states, have scarcely a chance in the long run and are no longer provided for by the EU. Some of their activities are even considered discriminatory. In contrast, the aim of trade associations is to protect the designation of the respective PDO or PGI, for which advertising is welcomed and permitted from the European point of view. A new era has indeed begun for the German winemaking industry.

Dr. Hermann Pilz

Dr. Hermann Pilz has been in charge of the trade magazine WEINWIRTSCHAFT as chief editor for over 20 years. He loves writing about many different topics of the wine and spirits industry.