Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Wine lake threatens to overflow

Chilean 'reserve' wine in oak barrels - see story below

A tabloid newspaper once asked me if I could help them with a stunt whereby a journalist in a boat would row on the wine lake. Needless to say, the wine lake does not exist in a form that lends itself to such an enterprise. Nevertheless, the crisis of surplus wine stocks in Europe is such that the lake metaphorically threatens to overflow.

The Commission's proposed reform measures would not have eliminated the problem, but now their effectiveness is going to be further diminished by dilution at the insistence of wine producing states like France, Italy and Spain, aided and abetted by wine producers among accession states such as Bulgaria and Romania.

The fundamental facts are these: Europeans are drinking less wine (consumption is declining by 0.65 per cent a year) and they are drinking more 'New World' wines from Australia, California, Chile etc. Exports are also declining, so that ten years ago the EU held mpre than 80 per cent of the world wine market and its current share is 65 per cent. Moreover, the accession of Bulgaria and Romania has pushed up production by some 7 million hectolitres.

The structural surplus in the wine market in a 'normal' year is around 12.8 million hectolitres and this does not include the amount distilled for industrial use. The EU is currently spending €1.269m a year on the wine regime, about forty per cent of that being spent on distillation.

Policy instruments have not worked well. The ban on new plantings has not controlled production because yields have increased in some member states and there have also been illegal plantings. The grubbing up scheme has virtually ceased to operate.

Wine is a very conservative industry in Europe and the rigid rules on labelling and wine-making practices hinder innovation. When I visited a Chilean winery last year, they told me that they had two types of wine, standard and reserve, the latter being matured in oak barrels.

Attempts to promote the idea of Geograohic Indications are making little headway anyway, but are not helped in the case if wine by the dichotomy between table wines and 'quality' wines produced in specified regions.

The Commission's original proposal envisgaed getting rid of about 12 per cent of the current area of vineyards. This would not have eliminated the surplus in a declining market, but it now looks likely that the grubbing up programme will be halved.

It is disappointing that the European Parliament has taken a hostile approach to the Commission's proposals. Particular interests have prevailed over more general ones. However, the wine sector itself needs to become more competitive otherwise it will suffer more in the long run.

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