Imagine you are looking for Prosecco in a wine shop. What section of the shop are you standing in? The dessert wine section or the sparkling wine section?
Prosecco is a wine region in northeastern Italy where a dry or off-dry sparkling wine, also called Prosecco, is made from the Glera grape. Prošek (say PRO-shek) is a sweet, still (not bubbly) wine made from dried grapes. It is most often bottled in 375- or 500-milliliter bottles and can be quite expensive, considering the tiny amount of juice obtained from raisined grapes. It is made from various Dalmatian local varieties, none of which are Glera. Both these wines and their names have lengthy history in their regions.
The problem? The producers of Prosecco (a protected name) are strenuously contesting Croatia’s renewed application to the European Commission to protect the traditional term prošek for its sweet wines.
The European laws for Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) were created to define the specialized products of specific regions and protect them from infringement by others who would make use of their reputation. In this case the European Commission will rule on the basis of whether prošek is pretending to be Prosecco or could reasonably be confused with Prosecco.
If the ruling is for Italy, Prosecco will be unaffected and Croatia will continue to be barred from using the word prošek, as it has been since a previous ruling on an application in December 2013. If the ruling is for Croatia, “Prošek” will appear on labels of this sweet wine made in four specific areas of Dalmatia, and Prosecco will continue as currently.
Anyone who knows wine acknowledges the importance of PDO laws and can only have great respect for producers of quality Prosecco. But in this case, comments by some of the Italian party come across as more hysterical than well reasoned.
The main objections seem to be that, 1. allowing the term prošek would confuse consumers and that this would affect the sales or reputation of Prosecco; 2. Croatian producers are attempting to capitalize on the name Prosecco; and 3. allowing such similarities to be codified will open a floodgate of imitators of protected products trying to get approval based on this precedent.
Objection 1: Confusing Consumers
Italy maintains that allowing Croatian producers to use the word prošek on the labels of small bottles of sweet wine would cause confusion to the consumer. But what consumer, served a petite glass of intensely sweet wine, would not object that they expected sparkling wine, or vice versa? Consumers may not be able to recite the CO2 pressure in a bottle of Prosecco or the Oechsle level of grapes for prošek, but they do know what they want in their glass.
The relative size of each party to a dispute does not matter in the context of PDO, as Champagne has rightly proven many times. But let’s look at the size and advantages of these parties to try to make sense of Croatia’s intentions.
More than 600 million bottles of Prosecco are sold each year (let’s say that’s 450 million liters); it accounts for more than a third of sparkling wine imports worldwide. Prošek currently has zero export market, as Croatia has been unable to use the term on labels post-2013. In that year, 97,200 liters of prošek entered the marketplace, according to figures from the Croatian Agency for Agriculture and Food. That’s .02% of Prosecco’s sales.
Considering the ongoing decline in consumption of dessert wines globally, it is difficult to imagine prošek ever affecting Prosecco’s sales—even if someone managed to add bubbles. And since exactly zero bottles labeled Prosecco contain still dessert wine made from dried grapes, the existence of such a dessert wine (and from a different country) can hardly affect Prosecco’s reputation, regardless of that wine’s name.
Objection 2: Attempting to Capitalize
Prošek producers would be foolish to try to dupe the public into buying sweet wine when they wanted sparkling. The wines are too different for any reasonable observer to believe Croatians are trying to ride on the coattails of Prosecco.
What may be less obvious is whether, through no fault of present-day Croatians, the word prošek is too similar to, or derived from, or a translation of the word Prosecco. While observers have presented various ideas, no explanation clearly prevails. Picking just low-hanging fruit, the Wikipedia entry for the village of Prosecco cites a writer on the etymology of Slovenian place names who has pegged both Prosecco (the wine) and prošek to the name of the village. (This village, by the way, was not even a part of the Prosecco production zone until the redefinition of Prosecco in 2009, when the zone was broadly expanded to include it.)
The entry for prošek refers you to the wine writer Miquel Hudin, who thinks it most likely that prošek, with its oft-forgotten mark in place on the s, comes from prošli, the Croatian word for late (as in late harvest).
The case for translation is no more decisive. If the village of Prosecco was at different times in history called Prosek (s, not š), it does not follow that the wine name prošek is a translation of the wine name Prosecco. One is a single village; the other, two very different wines.
Objection 3: Setting Precedents
It is the job of the European Commission to consider a number of similar precedents. But none of these exactly describes the situation. A German “parmesan” was deemed too similar to Italian parmigiano—indeed both were similar styles of cheese. Friulian makers of wine from the white grape Tocai can no longer use this word on the label; it could be confused with the homonymous Tokaj, a historic wine region in Hungary where both dry and sweet white wines are made. In this case, both wines were conceivably dry and white. A recent ruling against a chain of Spanish tapas bars called Champanillo (“little Champagne”) and incorporating an image of coupe glasses was made on the basis of “evocation of the place in which products are made.” This might be relevant if prošek producers stood to gain anything at all by evoking a sparkling wine—and one that is less expensive and more easily found than their own product.
Perhaps the most valid of the objections by Prosecco makers is that a ruling for prošek would open the floodgates for a torrent of similar “encroachments.” But a precedent is set either way. Would Prosecco have the European Commission turn off the lights and pretend not to be home, to discourage anyone from knocking? Team Prosecco may be right to be worried about the purity of its brand, but prošek should not be its bogeyman.
[Title photo: Prosecco and the dessert wine formerly labeled Prošek. Staff/CCM]