EU farm ministers have agreed a reform package for the wine sector that dilutes the package proposed by Commissioner Fischer Boel. Pressure from France and Italy means that fewer vineyards will be scrapped and the surplus of low quality wine will continue to be distilled for industrial use over a four year period.
The Commission's plan to outlaw chapitalisation (using sugar or must to add sweetness to alcohol) has been scrapped and it will still be allowed in those statements where it is already legal. This proposal was opposed by Austria, Germany and Hungary. One consequence is that subsidies will have to be prolonged to producers in the southern states which use must as the grape juice is more expensive.
Traditionalists will also be pleased that an overall harmonisation of labelling practices throughout the EU as planned by the Commission will not take place. However, winemakers not using geographical indications and designations of origin will in future be allowed to indicate their wines' grape variety and vintage on the label.
In this connection, UK Labour MEP Brian Simpson commented, 'This is the battle for the £6 bottle. There is too much snobbery about wine, which has caused the resistance.'
Much of the annual €1.3bn EU wine budget, about half of which buys up unwated wine, will be put into national envelopes for member state governments to use in promotion and restructuring.
Putting a brave face on the deal, Commissioner Fischer Boel admitted, 'We didn't get everything we wanted, but we have ended up with a well-balanced agreement.' In other words, the wine producing states have exerted effective pressure to defend their interests.
The underlying problem is that traditional growers like France and Italy have been consuming a third less of their own crop. Where consumption is growing in countries like Britain and Sweden, it is often being driven by 'New World' wines which are perceived to offer better value.
Whether the EU wine lake can be drained in five years as is hoped remains to be seen. Much will depend on effective implementation at member state level.