The Losh Cause – Bold reform on the way… at last

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Long-awaited draft proposals for EU wine reform get tough on sub-standard growers while freeing market-aware producers from regulatory fetters that have stifled innovation for too long. Chris Losh hopes the measures are adopted swiftly rather than becoming bogged down in Brussels bureaucracy and politicking.

Well, no-one can say the EU didn't get there in the end. After years of propping up sub-standard producers and generally fiddling with legislative minutiae while Rome burns, at last we have some bold moves from the EU to address its wine crisis.

These pages have already dealt at some length with the proposals for the reform of the wine budget that will form the starting-point for negotiations among member states later this year, so I won't dwell on the finer details of the end of subsidies for must production and the like here.

The beauty of these new draft proposals is not just that they show a willingness (albeit belated) to get tough on sub-standard growers making wine every year that has no market, but that they are also finding ways to offer opportunities to successful producers. Along with the stick, there is a fair bit of carrot, too.

For years, I have listened with some sympathy to European wine producers with grand ambitions who found themselves throttled by red tape and unable to compete.

Successful producers were often prevented from expanding their operations because of the freeze on vineyard area, and the way the industry was structured made it all but impossible to produce big-volume varietal wine of the sort that has propelled Australia to the top of the commercial tree.

European producers could, for sure, mix wines from different regions, but its subsequent classification as table wine meant that no grape variety or vintage could be featured on the label - commercial death, in other words.

Under the new proposals, there will be no restrictions on planting, so any producers who think they can make money will be allowed to put in vines. This will make a huge difference in regions like Rioja that have seen grape prices (and yields) go through the roof as producers try to meet a burgeoning demand with a fixed producing area.

The other big positive, though, is the wholesale revamping of the classification system. Appellation Côntrolée and Vins de Pays will remain unchanged, but the category of wine without a geographical indicator will be almost unrecognisable. Producers will be able to mix grapes not just from one country, but even from different countries within the EU, and bottle it with both grape variety and vintage on the label.

It's a proposal very similar to that put forward a few years ago to create a 'vin de pays de France', only wider-ranging and more radical. In the next ten years, if the legislation goes through, we could well see big volume French, Italian and Spanish (indeed, intra-European) varietal wines on a scale that would be impossible today.

The 'vin de pays de France' proposal, incidentally, was a reform to French, not EU, wine law, and was torpedoed by parochial growers in the Languedoc who had the ear of the agriculture minister, and there are some who worry that these new proposals will either never see the light of day, or be so diluted as to be worthless.

The Commission, though, is quietly confident of getting its new baby through the European Parliament, not least because everyone, it claims - even the French - accepts that the current situation is unsustainable.

More of a factor, though, is the fact that, with an enlarged EU, the voting power of even France, Spain and Italy combined would not be sufficient to block proposals like these, if everyone else voted in favour.

If all goes well (and we shouldn't underestimate the ability of special interest groups to tie up draft proposals) the wine reforms could be in place as early as vintage 2008.

Here's hoping…

Sectors: Wine

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