The battle for control of generic names such as Champagne, Burgundy and Scotch has been raging between the EU and the New World for a number of years. But the rhetoric has taken on a new edge as the argument enters a crucial stage before the important WTO summit in Mexico this September. Alan Osborn reports.

Some four years after they began, negotiations for a deal over a geographical indication register for traditionally made wines and spirits are entering a decisive phase at the World Trade Organisation. The talks have taken so long because there is a fundamental difference in approach between New World producers led by the US who want such a register to amount to no more than a kind of voluntary data-base and the Europeans who see it as a means of ensuring world-wide legal protection for traditional appellations. The aim is to strike a deal by the WTO summit, in Cancun, Mexico, in September.

Put simply, the Europeans feel that a powerful and binding system is needed to prevent time-honoured descriptions like Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne wines or Scotch whisky being appropriated and exploited by New World producers who lack any claim either to the geographical regions indicated or to the traditional means of production carried out in them. But there are nuances. Under any agreed system, a country could challenge a term and if subsequent bilateral negotiations failed to resolve the issue, the challenging country would not have to protect it.

Others say the list should simply be a non-binding information base that countries would merely consult before determining whether or not to protect a particular term. There is discussion over whether the terms should cover the type of grape rather than the region and exactly how regions should be defined but the basic political divisions are over the obligations that the register may or may not require.

Don't doubt the strength of feeling on this issue among European wine producers. Marion Wolfers, secretary-general of the Comité Vins (the European committee of wine producers) says flatly that "they are geographical indications, and other nations who've been using the terms fraudulently are confusing the consumer. It's misleading and unfair. They should stop using them and replace them by names from their own country."

Wolfers told just-drinks: "To call your wine Port, for instance, you have to respect a charter that goes back to 1725 which specifies how many grapes should be used, what kind, how long grown, when they are picked and so on. Everything from the grape to the final product is covered. And it's the same for Champagne and for Burgundy. All these big regions have very old definitions of what can and what cannot be done and we think that this has to be respected."

There are 17 of these "semi-generic designations, wines of geographical significance" used in the USA Wolfers said. These are:  bordeaux, burgundy, champagne, sherry, claret, chablis, chianti, graves, madeira, malaga, marsala, moselle, port, rhine wine, sauternes, tokay and angelica. "We know the US uses these names, mainly for something completely different from what we do, and we'd like them to stop," Wolfers said.

Similarly tough words are voiced by the Scotch Whisky Association. Spokesman David Williamson said: "We take action in markets around the world to make sure Scotch doesn't face unfair competition from other products passing themselves off and misleadingly described as Scotch whisky or whisky. This is a fundamental priority for us."

The Americans agree that protection is justified but not how to do it. Jim Clawson of JBC International, international trade consultants to the American wine industry, says that "certainly the US wine and spirits industry are supportive of  protecting geographical indications." But the means to do is through existing intellectual property laws that cover things like trademarks, he says.

"Our view is that the register they're discussing ought to be one where a country can notify other countries of the terms it's protecting and that puts those other countries on notice that if they're going to grant something like it they do so at risk," he told just-drinks.com. They're really being told that, "I could come after you at some subsequent time," he said.

Clawson said the European approach, far from being "first in time first in right," amounts to "whoever files at the WTO first, and nobody objects, gets it." This "changes the dynamic of who has exclusive rights to those terms," he argues. "And so we think that the mandatory system they're proposing is not acceptable, particularly to a lot of developing countries and others who simply aren't going to run in and object to something and then subsequently find they have a trademark that's going to be invalidated in other countries because they failed to object."

Clawson sees geographical indications as a "significant secondary marketing benefit" when it comes to selling wine in the US. The producer Mondavi, for instance, makes wine at Napa Valley and at Woodbridge but charges more for the former because "Napa Valley says something about the wine."

But while marketing of wine in the US is based on trademarks, geographical indications and variety, in Europe it's mainly concerned with geographical indications alone "and that's where the clash comes in," said Mr Clawson.

Most Americans are reported to buy wine according to "type" rather than origin. Interestingly the sale of Australian wines in the US only really took off when Australia re-labelled its products to make grape variety the prominent feature. This doesn't work as well at the top end of the market however where many American buyers still insist that their Champagne comes from a specific region of France and their Scotch from Scotland. It's this profitable market that the EU wants to protect.