Croatian accession spells trouble for sweet ‘prosek’ wine

Letter from Hvar: Fears for the future of a local drink are emblematic of wider concern for identity

Andro Tomic, a leading Hvar winemaker The name prosek could be banned from July 1st because it sounds too similar to prosecco, the wine from northern Italy that has brand protection in Brussels.

Andro Tomic, a leading Hvar winemaker The name prosek could be banned from July 1st because it sounds too similar to prosecco, the wine from northern Italy that has brand protection in Brussels.

Mon, Jun 24, 2013, 01:00

Croatia is rightly proud of what it will bring to the European Union when it becomes the bloc’s 28th member next week, from graceful Zagreb in the north, to Dubrovnik in the south, dubbed “paradise on earth” by George Bernard Shaw.

The country’s greatest treasure is a coastline of jagged cliffs and quiet coves that cuts for 5,800km through the azure Adriatic, which encircles 1,100 islands of pale stone and green pines. One of the most beautiful of these islands is Hvar, where Croatia’s natural gifts abound: short, mild winters and long, warm summers; that limpid sea; and a rolling landscape of wild flowers, olive groves and vineyards that give a harvest of lavender, honey, oil and wine.

Strange, then, that this idyllic spot could be the first battleground between the EU and its new member.

The cause is the name of a sweet Croatian wine. For centuries, families on the southern coast and islands have made prosek, which has a taste somewhere between that of sherry and such dessert wines as Hungary’s Tokaji or French Sauternes.

The name could be banned from July 1st, however, after which the EU says Croatian winemakers may no longer sell the drink at home or abroad as prosek because it sounds too similar to prosecco, the wine from northern Italy that has brand protection in Brussels.

Prosek and prosecco are totally different,” says Andro Tomic, a leading Hvar winemaker. Prosek is sweet and still; prosecco is dry and fizzy. They are made with different grapes using different methods. “It’s like confusing Champagne and champignons,” says Tomic. “It’s absurd.”

There is no similarity in taste or appearance between the wines, but Croatia’s government is struggling to defend prosek in the face of unbending EU rules and Italian determination to protect prosecco.

“We haven’t had much help or guidance from the government. Croatia hasn’t done enough to protect traditional local products like prosek,” says Tomic.

Surveys show that most Croats support accession to the EU, but that only a minority believes membership will bring prosperity to their country and has a clear grasp of what accession means in terms of new rules and regulations.

An apparent combination of confusion and apathy has resulted in sudden panic among some speciality food and drinks producers with the approach of July 1st.

Croatia has only registered one food product – a prsut ham similar to Italian prosciutto – for EU-wide protection, leaving some exposed to the kind of problems facing prosek.

In northwestern Croatia, for example, makers of a traditional red wine called teran are wondering how they will market their product after next Monday, because neighbouring Slovenia has already registered its own teran wine for EU-wide brand protection.

Some officials have blamed previous Croatian governments for failing to defend the country’s traditional products, but others have said Brussels asked Zagreb to withdraw its request for brand protection for prosek, perhaps so as not to endanger next Monday’s accession with a last-minute row with Rome.

“We will find the best solution to make up in some way for what wasn’t done in 2008, 2009 and later,” Croatia’s agriculture minister Tihomir Jakovina said recently, vowing that, if agreement could not be reached with Italy and Slovenia, then Zagreb was ready for a legal scrap.

To many European leaders and officials in Brussels, grappling with banking crises and national bailouts, what Croatians call their wines, meats and cheeses must seem like trivial matters.

But to a nation of 4.4 million people, who fought a war for their independence less than 20 years ago, and who now wonder what will become of them inside a 28-state, 500-million-strong behemoth, such concerns stoke fears of a loss of sovereignty and identity.

“Only now are manufacturers and officials talking about how to protect these special products, which we have produced for centuries,” says Tomic.

“Hopefully the name prosek can be protected. It is part of our culture. When a child is born the parents put aside that year’s prosek and drink it on the child’s wedding day.”

Tomic’s son Sebastijan says Croatia’s quality winemakers could thrive in the EU, if they can navigate the maze of rules and regulations that now threatens the prosek name. Talk of a possible wine war has not been bad for business though, he admits: “We’ve recently sold twice as much prosek as this time last year. So the EU has already brought us something good . . .”