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Italy's Friuli Region Loses Tocai Name

Region's wines will now be called Friulano to end 50-year dispute with Hungary's Tokaji region

Jo Cooke
Posted: October 13, 2006

Wine producers in Friuli, in the northeast corner of Italy, recently completed what will be the last harvest of one of the region's most popular single-variety whites, Tocai Friulano. Following a ruling by the European Union, wines made from local Tocai grapes will, beginning April 1, 2007, be labeled as Friulano, which simply means "coming from Friuli."

"We've lost something important," said Maria Angela Schiopetto, marketing director of the Schiopetto winery, one-quarter of whose total production is Tocai. "But what is important now is for producers here to take the bull by the horns and show solidarity behind the new name. We need to let the consumer know that Friulano is an indicator of the same level of quality that they are used to."

The change comes at the end of a nearly five-decade disagreement with Hungary's Tokaji region which, in 1959, initiated legal proceedings to restrict the name Tokay/Tocai to its famous dessert wines, Tokaji Aszú, made from local Furmint and Hárslevelü grapes with varying percentages of noble rot (botrytis).

The Italians won that stage of the battle, after the court ruled that Tocai (or Tokay), could be made in both Italy and in Hungary, without risk of market confusion. The decision was, at that time, upheld by the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg. But Hungary struck back during the talks that preceded Hungary's entry into the E.U. in 2004. One of the agreements reached was that Hungary would have exclusive rights to the Tokay/Tocai brand name from April 2007.

The Italians appealed the decision in the European Court, but the judges' ruling in May 2005 was this time in Hungary's favor, stating that Tokay was a protected geographical indication denoting a Hungarian regional specialty, whereas the Italian Tocai had no particular attributes of geographic origin. The Tocai Friulano grape is related to Sauvignon Blanc, and some even believe it to be the same variety as France's Sauvignon Vert (also known in Spain, Chile and Argentina as Sauvignonasse).

The E.U. agreement also affected France's Alsace region, where Tokay is the traditional name for the local Pinot Gris whites. In recent vintages, a number of Alsatian producers anticipated the court decision by changing the name of their Tokay d'Alsace to Tokay-Pinot Gris D'Alsace. But now, to comply with the E.U. ruling, the Tokay name will have to be removed from those labels as well.

Producers in Friuli have ahead of them the task of relaunching what was one of their most popular whites. However, according to Massimo di Lenardo of the di Lenardo winery, which ships 2,500 cases of its Tocai wine Toh! to the United States each year, the decision, though something of a moral affront to Friuli's Tocai producers, should not cause major economic repercussions in the region.

"In reality," said di Lenardo, "there are only around 225,000 cases of quality Tocai made annually in Friuli. We now have an opportunity to remarket the wine, and the Friulano brand can only help to emphasize the exclusive connection of the wine to the region of Friuli.

"Any tears that have been shed publicly following the ruling," he added, "are really only pro forma tears."

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