Geographical indications guarantee the origin of a food product. When we go to the supermarket we focus on the products with this logo because we know it is unique. In wine history, we can find many keys on the firsts steps to the development of GIs.

But how did they come about? What is their history?

Many elements influenced the emergence of four of the firsts Geographical Indications and their development. I want to thank Giulia Meloni who wrote the article ‘The political economy of Geographical Indications’ that helped me on my research about wine history to write this article.

In this article you will learn:

The beginning of the issue that led to the creation of delimitations of territories: conflicts between neighbours

Quality and trade were inevitably linked

Stories of neighbours bringing the best food and wine home

The wine was the first, then food

The firsts delimitation of production areas or terroir were only for wine. In 1992 the law expanded to food.

Vineyard in Carcassone, France

The first terroir in history is the delineation of Burgundy wines in the fifteenth century. The first to receive a formal Geographical Indication status were Port wines in Portugal, Chianti wines in Italy and Tokay wines from Hungary in the eighteen century. But the first more elaborated specification of GIs like today’s was for Champagne. It was an “Appellations of Origin” (Appellations d’Origine–AO), today we call it ‘Protected Designation of Origin’.

In all cases, the Geographical Indication/terroir was later extended to a much larger region.

The beginning of the issue: conflicts between neighbours

In different times and contexts, it was always the same problem:

Imagine that you are a wine producer… You live in a vineyard in Europe, you make a wine that has a good reputation and high price. Then, the producers from the neighbour village start to produce wine and label it with the same name that YOU use to enjoy the reputation of the wine.

This makes you very angry. But instead of grabbing your crossbow and kill your copycat neighbour, you decide to join your winemaker neighbours. Together you form a union to pressure the country’s authorities to define the production zone.

You start to pressure the government to create protection or delimitation of the production land to leave outside the new producers.

Long story short: the government or authority figure decides to help your community by delimiting the production area.

They may include – or not – the new producers, giving the product a Geographical Indication status.

The world’s first geographical indications were in the wine sector. They focused on the delineation of the production area, the ‘terroirs’.

Medieval wine

A renowned wine has good quality. But quality not as we perceive it today.

At that time there were no preservatives. A product needed to last longer, in a natural way, to arrive in good condition at its destination.

Quality and trade were inevitably linked

The wine producers prioritized areas that produced a robust wine, which maintained its characteristics of aroma and flavour during the trip to the destination, was easy to market.

To illustrate, many letters of wine merchants based in London document that a ‘true’ Chianti wine was a wine that was able to travel from the land of established powerful Florentine landowners.

Portugal and Italy wines and the English market

The emergence of the first geographical delimitation of processing territories is related to international trade. These delimitations later gave rise to what we know today as geographical indications.

England in the 17th century was an important importer of wines from France, Spain, Italy and Portugal.

Wine trade

In parallel, these stories were very similar. As the trade of wine from Italy and Portugal to England increased, so did the number of producers in the Chianti region, located between Siena and Tuscany in Italy and the Duoro river coast region in Portugal. This generated problems between original and new producers. The situation changed when England went to war with France in 1688.

England's wars against France triggered conflicts in the wine trade

England increased the import tariffs for French wines. Thus two new important suppliers for English wine emerged: Port wine in Portugal and Chianti wine in Italy.

Port wines

Portuguese wines travelled through the Douro river and were shipped to Britain via the port of Porto.

British wine merchants in Porto added brandy to the wine to resist the trip to Britain. This increased the alcohol content in wines. Moreover, to get the characteristic burgundy colour of port wine, the producers added elderberries.

The colour of Port wine varies depending on the ageing process

Soon people started to know these wines as “Port wines” and they gradually became the main Portuguese wine exported to Britain.

It was the Marquis of Pombal who decided to delimit the Port wine production area.

335 stones called ‘feitoria’ delimitated the production area leaving out the new producers.

Feitoria in Portugal

The English population perceived Port as a patriotic drink because it was not French wine. Port wine even became known as the “Englishman’s wine” since it was discovered, traded and consumed for centuries only by Englishmen.

They delimited the area and determined that port wine could be produced only with grapes from the Duoro region

Today, a third of these stones are still standing.

Chianti wines

The Tuscan aristocracy complained that non-aristocratic families from Siena produced and exported a ‘false chianti’ because it was not produced in the Chianti region.

Chanti wines
Chianti wines

The old producers claimed that the wine of the new producers was lower quality and diminished the quality perceived by English consumers.

It was the Grand Duke Cosimo III to decide the Chianti wine delimitation to protect the reputation (and profits) of Chianti producers. It included the whole region of Tuscany, excluding Siena, its eternal rival.

The Tokaji wine

Your Majesty, Tokaji wine is a unique wine. It is obtained by grapes infected with a fungus called botrytis that dries them out. The wine obtained is sweet, hence the name: ‘nectar of kings, emperors, princes and their princesses.

Tokay wines have been legendary for over 400 years. It was first made in 1650 by the Rakoczi family winemaker in his vineyard called Oremus in Sárospatak.

Grapes infected with botrytis
Grapes infected with noble rot

The Tokaji is the first wine elaborated from grapes affected by noble rot, “Botrytis cinerea”. A century before the Rhine and about two centuries before Sauternes.

By far the best wines of the Ausburg. The Emperors appropriated the best vineyards with the intention of entertaining foreign monarchs.

The name Tokaji and its copycats

Tokaji was the wine of the Tokaj region in the Kingdom of Hungary.

In Bordeaux, the Garonne river produces the same weather to get the noble rot essential to the wines of Sauternes. The same runs for Germany in the Mosel River.

In Alsace, France, and Friuli, Italy producers even donned the words “Tokay” or “Tokai” on their labels to market their wines.
The name is also used for a small number of wines from the Slovak region of Tokaj in Slovakia. Since the beginning of the kingdom in the year 1000 until the end of World War I in 1918, this region was part of Hungary

This controversy resulted in the classification of the vineyards of Tokaj in 1730. In 1757 there was a noble decree to establish the closed production district of Tokaj.

With the treaty of accession of Hungary and Slovakia to the European Union, the name Tokaji achieved the status of Protected Designation of Origin. Since then, French and Italian producers cannot use the name Tokay or Tocai since March 2007.

Burgundy, a protoGI

Burgundy is arguably the first Geographical Indication in history in 1415 and the most persistent. Long before Chianti and Porto, trade conflicts among wine producers determined the delineation of the Burgundy wine region. But, in this case, domestic trade was crucial. Two regions were producing Burgundy wine.

The Cote d’Or, expensive wines with an old reputation that traded wines to the north of Europe and to the city of Avignon, the Pope residence at that time. They were expensive wines and allegedly the Pope’s favourite.

The second production area was the area of Auxerre on the coast of the river Yonne and Seine. The wine was less reputed, but the river was an easy position for them to trade wines to Paris.

wine history Burgundy wine, the Pope's favourite

This facilitated the entry to Paris but increased the competition between the two regions. According to the Cote d’Or producers, the wine had the same name but of different qualities. And they pressured the government to remove them from the production area.

It was King Charles VI who decided in 1415 that both wines would be called Bourgogne wines, to “obviate the frauds, crimes, deceptions, and abuses that could be made” and defined “Burgundy wine” as “the wines are grown below the bridge of Sens, both those in the area of Auxerre and those in the area of Beaune”.

Burgundy was the first GI, international trade conflicts made emerge Chianti and Porto wines and the last example is the first geographical indication that introduced a more elaborated specification. It was at the beginning of the 20th century and the first called Appellation of Origin or Protected Designation of Origin as we know it today.

Champagne, the first Appellation of Origin

In the 17th and 18th century, the wines of the Champagne region in France gained a great reputation. The ‘Champagne Houses’, Veuve Clicquot or Moet & Chandon, were wine producers and traders. They bought grapes or wine from the producers /(vignerons in French) to make ‘champagne’ under their brand.

wine history veuve cliquot
Veuve Cliquot wine

Dom Pérignon started with the production of wines in the Champagne region in 1668. He is the inventor of the second fermentation in the bottle or Méthode Champenoise and the first winemaker who produced white wine of blue grapes.

Champagne was an expensive wine

And this attracted the attention of many neighbouring producers who started to produce wine and label it ‘champagne’. These producers were not in the traditional production region and did not respect the quality standards. The situation aggravated when phylloxera (grape sickness) arrived and affected the crops. From 1906 to 1908 the grape harvest decreased by 70%. Yet, there were no restrictions for producers to buy wine outside Marne and Aisne and make wine under the name Champagne. This meant that traders could buy grapes or wine of any quality or region and call it champagne, leading to fraud and poor quality wine.

The classic law of supply and demand would tell us that since the quantity of product was so low, wine prices would rise. But imports from Spain and Italy kept prices low. This led the wine producers and traders to pressure the government to limit the production area only to the Marne and Aisne region.

wine history of champagne

Later, in 1927 the appellation included the Aube, Haute-Marne and Seine-et-Marne departments, known before as the ”zone 2” of production. The region remains to this day. In 1908 the French government decreed that only wines produced with grapes from the Marne et Aube region could be called Champagne. Becoming the first legally recognized appellation of origin with quality standards in France.

Stories of neighbours bringing the best food and wine home

These stories between neighbours and conflicts may seem to rely on the economic interests of producers. But instead, they allow us to enjoy a pure Champagne, with the original grapes and production system that guarantee its quality.

The same applies to food. If today you can enjoy a Protected Designation of Origin cheese like Camembert de Normandie in France or Taleggio cheese is thanks to these regulations.

Taleggio cheese Protected Designation of Origin
Taleggio cheese

Thanks to Geographical Indications, Champagne sales and world consumption increased without devaluing its quality or changing its composition.

If today I find a Burgundy wine in the supermarket, I know that it is a Burgundy wine, the same Burgundy that the Pope enjoyed in 1415. If I find a Chianti wine, I know it is that Chianti that the Tuscans fought over at the end of the 17th century.

Today, in the 21st century and anywhere in the world, that same Chianti is in my house.

What do you think of this subject? Do you think other aspects influenced the expansion of Geographical Indications in Europe? Do you think the GIs are still expanding? Tell me all about it in the comments!