Reform of EU wine policy has long been viewed as a necessity, but may be closer to becoming a reality, judging by recent remarks from agriculture commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel. A timetable for reform is now in place, beginning with the publication of a Commission policy paper on the subject next month. Alan Osborn reports.

The broad shape of the wine reform plan to be presented by the European Commission in June has become clearer following remarks by the European Union (EU) agriculture commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel in Spain earlier this month.

She reassured producers for the first time that Brussels will not propose any cut in the EUR1.2-1.3bn a year budget for subsidising wine production in an effort to cut back chronic surplus over-production in the EU. Rather the Commission will argue for "more intelligent use" of the money, she said. The agriculture commissioner is also expected to propose new financial arrangements for "grubbing up" low quality vines in an effort to improve the overall quality of EU output.

"If I am just presented with ideas for more of the same, forget it," she said. "We need a reform which will reinvigorate our wine sector. I am looking at different options and I am in close contact with producers, industry, importers and exporters."

At present, the producers of wine that cannot be sold commercially can claim grants to subsidise distilling the wine into biofuel or for use in other industrial applications. This has been happening on a huge and unsustainable scale in recent years. It is not yet clear whether the scheme is now to be abandoned but, in any event, say Brussels sources, it will be very sharply cut back and growers may be assisted in other ways - through direct single payments linked to acreage and history, for instance. Depending on the level of handouts, this may well be resisted in the main wine-producing countries like France, Italy, Spain and Portugal.

Fischer Boel was speaking as the Commission completed its Communication (formal policy paper) on wine reform, which it plans to publish on 21 June. Fischer Boel and others in Brussels have long made it clear that major structural changes, paving the way for a permanent end to the chronic over-supply situation of the past, are on the way. However, the Brussels paper is not a legal document, but rather a detailed plan for action, accompanied by an impact assessment, to be considered by the Council of Ministers of the 25 EU countries, with a view to drawing up legislative proposals by the end of the year.

"The plan is to work quickly so it can enter into force in time for the 2008 campaign," says Jose Ramon Fernandes, director-general of the European Wine Committee (CEEV - the Comité Européen des Enterprises Vins), the leading organisation of EU wine producers. This means the legislation will have to win final approval from the Council and the European Parliament in the spring or summer of 2007. "That's the schedule we're working on but there could be a lot of debate," Fernandes told just-drinks.

Johan Reyniers, the Commission's wine spokesman, insisted that the Commission's plans would be set out in some detail in the communication in June but could not be written into formal legislative proposals until the Council had considered them. This will give the Commission an opportunity to test the political water before releasing final formal proposals. Brussels would not engage directly with the national wine producers, whose views would be made known through the Council, he said.

Fischer Boel has constantly pushed for radical reform. In February this year, she said that there was a need to update some of the existing tools such as measures and rules related to planting rights, restructuring, oenological practices, labelling and various kinds of distillation.

"We could go further and take a look at the new principles which now operate in much of the rest of the Common Agricultural Policy such as de-coupling and cross-compliance," Fischer Boel said at the time. Whether all of this ends up in a formal legal proposal depends on the response the council gives to the Communication.