Rioja vs Rioja

  How would you feel if you bought a porcelain tea set from Limoges only to discover that it was made in Limoges, Mississippi, not in France? Or a crystal vase from Waterford, Michigan instead of Waterford in Ireland?  Disappointed, right? You wanted the real thing but were duped by someone taking advantage of the reputation of a place name to sell you something else.

That’s how Rioja lovers will probably feel after buying a bottle of wine from the province of La Rioja in Argentina.  The Rioja Regulatory Council in Spain has been fighting a long legal battle with the producers of wine from La Rioja in northwestern Argentina over the latter’s right to identify their wine as Rioja.

Rioja contends that the use of ‘Rioja’, ‘La Rioja’ and adjectives based on ‘Rioja’ clearly lead consumers to confusion over the origin of the wine.  The Regulatory Council commissioned a survey by ACNielsen that showed that almost 60% of international consumers identified Argentine Rioja as Rioja from Spain.

The latest round in the fight, however, has been won by Argentina, whose National Appellate Court recently ruled in favor of the Argentine Rioja, stating that the use of the word ‘Argentina’ after the appellation of Origin ‘Rioja’ clearly differentiates it from its Spanish counterpart.

The legal grounds for the ruling come from the TRIPS agreement (Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) whose article 23, paragraph 3 states

In the case of homonymous geographical indications for wines, protection shall be accorded to each indication, subject to the provisions of paragraph 4 of Article 22. Each Member shall determine the practical conditions under which the homonymous indications in question will be differentiated from each other, taking into account the need to ensure equitable treatment of the producers concerned and that consumers are not misled.

 However, Paragraph 4 of Article 22 covers the issue of potential consumer confusion:

 The protection under paragraphs 1, 2 and 3 shall be applicable against a geographical indication which, although literally true as to the territory, region or locality in which the goods originate, falsely represents to the public that the goods originate in another territory.

So the outstanding issue, then, is whether Argentine Rioja is deliberately trying to lead consumers to believe that their wines are from Rioja inSpain.

Many years ago, Rioja registered ‘Rioja’ in the European Union register of appellations of origin. Consequently Argentine Rioja can’t be sold as such in the E.U. But outside the E.U., for example in the USA, the issue isn’t so clear.  Argentine wines are a big hit in the US market and I’m sure that the producers from La Rioja in Argentina are trying to take advantage of this.  On the other hand, Spanish Rioja is making huge investments in PR and the Council is afraid that Argentine Rioja will cash in on the name ‘Rioja’.

So, the battle lines are drawn.  To me it’s a shame that given the current state of the wine business (oversupply, decreased consumption and low profits), Rioja has to fight this battle with its Argentine counterpart.

Look carefully at the picture at the top of this post.  If you saw a bottle on your local supermarket shelf, would you think it was from Spain?