The European wine sector took a step into the 21st century earlier this month. Given that many of its practices were mired in the 1930s, it was a stride that covered more than 70 years. Discussions have been on going for more than two years, often to the sound of gnashing teeth, but the final stage seems to have passed without incident on August 1. Even in the Languedoc, an area that has opposed many of Agriculture Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel’s reforms, no one set fire to a sheep.
For readers who need a brief summary, the changes can be divided into three parts. The first covers production, or more specifically over-production, and aims to “restructure” (a favourite EU term) the wine sector by balancing supply and demand. Uncompetitive or retiring growers will be paid to grub up their vines over the next three years. In addition, from 1st January 2016 there will be no more planting restrictions, so in theory a New World-style laissez faire approach will apply.
The second part, which is related to the first, concerns the phasing out of subsidies for crisis and potable alcohol distillation. Essentially, this meant turning crap wine that no one wanted to buy into fuel. The money the EU saves has and will be redirected to individual member states in the form of “national envelopes” to spend on marketing, promotion and the modernisation of vineyards and cellars. So far, according to Fischer Boel, a substantial chunk of the cash for this year has not been reclaimed.
The third part focuses on labelling. EU wines will now be grouped under three qualitative umbrellas: PDO (Protected Designations of Origin), PGI (Protected Geographical Indications) and Wine. The first must be made entirely with grapes from a single designated vineyard or region, the second may be blended with 15% of grapes from elsewhere within the same member state and the third can come from anywhere within the EU, but is now permitted to display a vintage as well as the variety or varieties from which it was made.
Whatever the opposition from some member states, an all too predictable response to reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, the European Union had to introduce these measures. Indeed, I would argue that they are long overdue and could have been even more revolutionary. One justified criticism is that the system is still based on origin, rather than quality, although individual regions and member states may choose to make the tastings that grant appellation/denomination status more rigorous.
How will the reforms affect the overall quality of European wine? It’s too early to say — looking back in a decade’s time will give us a better sense of perspective about their importance — but by confronting producers with the realities of the market (that’s to say prevailing consumer tastes and worldwide competition), Fischer Boel has done the European wine sector a favour. Producing an ocean of sub-standard, subsidised wine that seldom, if ever, got poured into a glass was the deadest of dead ends.
What Europe needs to do now is go on the offensive, making use of those national envelopes to market its wines as never before. At the top end it produces most, if not all, of the world’s greatest wines, but it needs to persuade punters that its mid- priced offerings are as good as anything from the New World and that its bargain basement wines are more drinkable than in the past.
I don’t think this is impossible by any means. Yes, some European wine is a disgrace, but if you look at some of the value for money wines coming out of Italy, Spain, Germany, Portugal and France, winning back market share from the New World (especially given Australia’s problems) is an achievable goal.
Europe needs more brands to make its headline figures look good and compete with the leverage, economies of scale and spending power of the big North American and southern hemisphere producers, but while it develops them, it has a number of other things in its favour, even if they comparatively recent trends.
More and more European consumers are worried about their carbon footprint and choosing to drink wines that are produced here rather than on the other side of the world. At the same time, there is a move towards better balanced wines, which partner rather than overwhelm food. Europe doesn’t have a monopoly on such styles, but they are more common here than elsewhere. Just as important, I believe that the diversity of Europe’s grape varieties (think Italy, Greece and Portugal) is increasingly attractive to wine drinkers who want to try something other than Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon.
It’s not going to be easy reversing the tide of New World wine in the UK, or better still bringing new drinkers into the market, but if either happens, EU wine producers should erect a statue to Mariann Fischer Boel.
Originally published in Off Licence News