European wine in major crisis

13 July, 2007

Attending a European Commission briefing, there are times when you need a translation service. EC speak is a language all of its own, even when it's expressed in English. There's a lot of talk about subsidiarity, decoupling, national envelopes and weighted distribution. After an hour and a half at the European Commission's HQ in London, I was desperate for a draught from the continent's copious wine lake.

Strip away the verbiage and the essentials of the new document

- snappily entitled The Reform Of The Common Market Organisation For Wine: Draft Regulation, Adopted By The Commission

Sent To The Council And The ­European Parliament

- are comparatively easy to grasp. What follows is my interpretation.

1. The European wine sector is in deep shit, despite producing the majority of the world's finest wines.

2. Things are going to get worse if it clings to the status quo.

3. The New World is stealing more and more of its global market share.

4. Europe can't go on like this, paying people to distil wine that no one wants to drink.

5. If it pays European grape growers to pull out 200,000ha of vines and phase out the various "intervention measures" such as crisis distillation by 2013, there's a chance

the EU wine sector might be vaguely competitive.

Apart from removing those 200,000ha (a fifth of the continent's area under vine), how does the EC (and, if the proposals are ratified, the EU) plan to take on the southern hemisphere and put European wine "back on top of the world", in the words of the far-sighted EU agriculture commissioner, Mariann Fischer Boel?

First, it plans to use its E1.3 billion budget more intelligently for marketing and rural development, among other things (hurrah). It also plans to lift restrictions on planting in 2013 (ditto), make labelling simpler (ditto) and adopt winemaking practices that are already approved by the International Organisation of Vine & Wine (OIV), such as the use of oak chips, although no one seems to know when this will actually happen (muted applause).

More controversially, at least in northern Europe, it plans to ban the use of sugar to increase alcohol levels, insisting that producers use must concentrate for chaptalisation instead (not bothered either way).

The reform that has attracted the most attention and given rise to headlines about "europlonk" is the plan to allow the blending of wine across the European Union's 27 member states and to sanction the use of the vintage and the grape variety (or varieties) on table wine labels. I think this is an excellent idea.

As Fischer Boel told the European Parliament on May 22: "Marketing personnel will welcome the indication of vine variety and vintage on labels. This has been a source of success of third country wines on the EU and world markets. We may be following others here, but we cannot afford not to."

Blending wine across a large area is well established in the New World and enables producers to make substantial volumes of well-priced vino. Of the 281 million litres that Australia currently exports to the UK, 146 million litres are labelled as South Eastern Australia, an area that covers Victoria, New South Wales, Tasmania, most of South Australia and a bit of Queensland. If it's good enough for the Aussies, why is it upsetting some European winemakers? Search me.

This does not have to be a recipe for bargain-basement vino. Skilled blenders should be excited by the prospect of combining, say, Spanish Albariño with Austrian Grüner Veltliner or Portuguese Touriga Nacional with Italian Sangiovese. It's great to see the EC responding to the market rather than to the interests of producers and member states. Italy, Spain and France may try to water the proposals down, but serious and wide-ranging reform is the only way forward. For the EU and its members, it's now or never.

Tesco breaks the mould with latest listings

Both my regular readers will know that this column has often criticised British retailers for taking the safe option by listing brands and me-too wines at the expense of more individual products. There are exceptions, such as Waitrose, Booths and Marks & Spencer, but the general trend has been towards consolidation rather than diversity over the

past five years.

But guess what? I recently attended a supermarket tasting that sent me skipping out on to the South Bank at its conclusion. Tesco, our biggest retailer, had just made a very significant statement of intent, showing 180 new wines. This represented slightly less than half of the 370 listings that will arrive in store on Aug

13, bringing the multiple retailer's total range to 1,100 wines.

More to the point, most of the wines were good or even better. They included grape varieties such as Fiano, Arneis, Falanghina, Godello, Mencia, Durif and Tannat and were generally priced at £6.99 or above. And no, that wasn't an airborne pig you saw sailing past your window ...

If any retailer can persuade UK consumers to spend more and to move away from their dependence on deals and identikit New World brands, it is Tesco. If it succeeds, future generations of wine drinkers will have a lot to thank it for.

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