7 maggio 2015

rioja_logo_3046Maintenance of the quality and reputation of Rioja wine justifies requiring it to be bottled in the region of production

Spanish rules govern the bottling of wines bearing the designation of origin “Rioja”. Belgium considered that those rules which, in particular, require the wine to be bottled in cellars in the region of production in order to qualify for the “controlled designation of origin” (denominación de origen calificada) were detrimental to the free movement of goods.

Belgium therefore brought Treaty-infringement proceedings 1 before the Court of Justice against Spain. Denmark, the Netherlands, Finland and the United Kingdom intervened in support of Belgium. Italy, Portugal and the Commission intervened in support of Spain.

Belgium considered that the incompatibility of the Spanish rules had already been established by the Court in its judgment of 9 June 1992 in the Delhaize case. In that judgment, the Court of Justice held, in response to a request for a ruling from a Belgian court, that national provisions applicable to wine of designated origin (Rioja wines in that case) which limited the quantity of wine that might be exported in bulk but otherwise permitted sales of wine in bulk within the region of production constituted measures having equivalent effect to a quantitative restriction on exports.

Spain contended that its rules conformed with Community law. It considered that the Delhaize judgment did not affect it specifically and that other wine-producing Member States had adopted similar provisions. Furthermore, its rules were justified on grounds relating to the protection of designations of origin and the quality of wines.

The Court examined the condition imposed by the Spanish rules to the effect that wine protected by a controlled designation of origin must be bottled only in authorized cellars in the region of production in order to be eligible to be described as “Rioja”.

According to the Court, that condition enabled wine transported in bulk within the region to retain its eligibility for the controlled designation of origin when it was bottled in authorised cellars. The Court therefore considered that it was a measure giving rise to a difference of treatment between trade within a Member State and its export trade. Consequently, it constituted an impediment to the free movement of goods.

The Court went on to consider whether that condition was justified by an objective in the general interest. The Spanish Government drew attention to the specificity of the product and to the need to protect the Rioja controlled designation of origin by safeguarding the wine’s particular characteristics, its quality and the guarantee of its origin. The condition as to bottling was, in its view, justified as being conducive to the protection of industrial and commercial property.

The Court observed that Community legislation displayed a general tendency to enhance the quality of products within the framework of the common agricultural policy, by recourse, inter alia, to designations of origin. Such designations often enjoyed a high reputation amongst consumers and constituted for producers an essential means of attracting custom.

The Court noted that quality wines were products of great specificity (a fact which, in the case of Rioja wine, was undisputed) and vigilance had to be exercised and efforts made in order for their quality and particular characteristics to be maintained.

By ensuring that wine growers in the region of La Rioja controlled bottling as well, the Spanish rules pursued the aim of better safeguarding the quality of the product and, consequently, the reputation of the designation, for which they now assumed full and collective responsibility.

Against that background, the Spanish rules were, in the Court’s view, to be regarded as compatible with Community law despite their restrictive effects on trade, provided that they constituted a necessary and proportionate means of upholding the great reputation enjoyed by the Rioja controlled designation of origin.

In order to determine whether that was the case, the Court observed in particular that:

  • the bottling of wine constituted an important operation which, if not carried out in accordance with strict requirements, could seriously harm the quality of the product:
  • however, the best conditions were more certain to be assured if bottling operations were carried out by undertakings established in the region of those entitled to use the designation and operating under the latter’s direct control, since they had specialised experience and, what is more, detailed knowledge of the specific characteristics of the wine in question;
  • bulk transport of wine could also seriously impair its quality if it was not carried out under optimum conditions;
  • controls undertaken outside the region of production in accordance with the Community rules were not systematic and consequently were less able to guarantee the quality and authenticity of the wine than those carried out in the region (the Spanish rules provided for every consignment to be carefully examined).

The Court inferred from those considerations that the risk to which the quality of the product finally offered to consumers was exposed was greater where it had been carried and bottled outside the region of production than when those operations had taken place within the region.

Accordingly, the Court concluded that the Spanish rules, whose aim was to preserve the great reputation enjoyed by Rioja wine, were justified as a measure protecting the controlled designation of origin which could be used by all the producers concerned and was of decisive importance to them.