Barbara Roth raises her glass and holds it into the camera. The sparkling wine tastes particularly good after this political success. Soon their bottles will look like they used to before the official wine inspection reprimanded their winery, the Wilhelmshof in Siebeldingen in the Palatinate. Before the Roths had to invest around 20,000 euros in a machine that covers their champagne bottles with a capsule because otherwise they would have been threatened with a sales ban. “We opposed it,” says Roth, who makes sparkling wine from half of her grapes. Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir, all in traditional bottle fermentation. The company violated EU law for 20 years, from 1992 to 2012. Until the office came to visit and noted the illegal practice by hand on a pink form.
They still exist, the seemingly absurd EU regulations, somehow out of date or without any comprehensible justification. The champagne capsule requirement, laid down in Article 57 of Regulation 2019/33 and invented during the EC period in the early 1990s, falls into this category. Sparkling wines must therefore be sold or exported in “sparkling wine-like bottles”. What is required is a “mushroom-shaped closure” made of cork or another food-safe material, “which is held by a closure”, i.e. the agraffe. Finally, the stopper has to be “covered with a film” that “fully or partially covers the closure and the bottle neck.”
Independent winemakers like Roth are pleased that this requirement for sparkling wine capsules is no longer required. And it has a lot to do with the CDU politician Christine Schneider: grew up in the Palatinate, political home in the Rhineland-Palatinate state CDU, and has been in the European Parliament since 2019. As a member of the state parliament, there was little she could do after Roth asked her about the regulation in 2015. When she entered the EU Parliament, she brought the topic up again and spoke to the responsible Commission officials. “For someone who wants to live the topic of sustainability in their company, it simply goes against the grain to put an aluminum foil over their bottles,” says Schneider.
This is an “outdated regulatory fossil,” says an astonished winemaker
This type of winemaker also includes Florian Lauer from the Peter Lauer winery in Ayl an der Saar, which is known for the typically delicate and precise Rieslings from steep slopes. And for the unconventional sparkling wines, which Lauer consistently markets without capsules, like its still wines. While Schneider insisted on the commission and Italy turned against the regulation, Lauer has been leading a lawsuit group of around 70 companies since 2020, including Wilhelmshof. The responsible authority had previously banned Lauer from selling 1,300 bottles of vintage sparkling wine. The fact that “such an outdated regulatory fossil was actually still activated amazed us,” says Lauer. So he went to court against the decision.
The Trier Administrative Court dismissed the lawsuit in 2021, saying the authority had acted correctly and the regulation was not disproportionate. That’s what Lauer objected to, among other things: the contradiction between the desire to avoid packaging waste and the obligation to use disposable aluminum capsules. The court found that “the uniform presentation of sparkling wine bottles is suitable to protect consumers from confusion/deception.” It also helps protect sparkling wine producers from unfair competition. Lauer appealed to the Higher Administrative Court in Koblenz, which now no longer has anything to rule on.
Meanwhile, the packaging industry is placing advertisements in trade magazines claiming that the capsule guarantees hygiene and “visibility on the shelf”. The sparkling wine industry also prefers to argue with distinctiveness. Roth and Lauer would rather conserve resources. And while most bottles of champagne, champagne and Crémant will probably continue to wear a capsule, everyone will have the choice in the future.