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Proposed reforms buck up against European winemaking traditions

July 05, 2007|From the Associated Press

BRUSSELS — An attempt to make European wines more competitive worldwide is pitting the EU's top farm bureaucrat against winemakers who claim the reforms will stain the soul of their centuries-old craft.

Winemakers seeking to shelter traditions that hold an almost mythical power are facing off against reformers more interested in marketing and global liberalization. Even those pushing for change concede that winemaking in countries such as France, Italy and Spain remains an emotional pursuit.

The European Union's top agricultural official has touched off the debate with a plan to change the way Europe makes and markets wine, even at the cost of hallowed tradition if necessary.

Increasing competition from Australia, the United States, South America and South Africa is changing the global market and European consumer tastes, and it means there is no way back, EU Farm Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel said Wednesday as she unveiled her full plan for reform.

One cornerstone of her plan to bounce back from years of overproduction and flagging sales of nonpremium wines involves digging up unprofitable vineyards and ending subsidies for the massive and costly distillation of wine that cannot be sold into industrial products.

Another important part of the plan seeks to simplify and streamline the system of geographical origins to make European wines more attractive to wine drinkers.

Under the current system, wines are labeled according to, and heavily associated with, their region of origin, or terroir. This tradition arose from the notion that the combination of soil and climate in a specific location gives the wine produced there its special character.

Vintners -- and the powerful lobbies that represent them in the European and national parliaments -- are vigorously fighting the reform, claiming that Fischer Boel is trying to sink tradition in favor of New World technique. The debate echoes the struggles Europe faces in other sectors, where adapting to a quickly changing global market is often at odds with long-held traditions.

"It puts into question more than 200 years of history. We need to maintain a strong link with the terroir," said Riccardo Ricci Curbastro of Italy's Federdoc group, the Italian organization that certifies farm products' regional origin and quality.

New World wines often rely more on the latest production methods to earn their reputation and are more likely to be categorized by their grape variety or blends than by their region.

Fischer Boel's plans originally called for winegrowers to give up some 12% of their vineyards in an ambitious plan to cut the most inefficient plots of land. Under protest already that figure has been halved.

She must convince the EU member states and the European Parliament to adopt these reforms quickly, however, if they are to kick in by the 2008 harvest.

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