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Europe diary: Wine culture
22 June 2006

In his diary this week, BBC Europe editor Mark Mardell looks at the European Commission's controversial plans to reform wine production - destroying vines, raising quality and taking lessons from the New World.

The diary is published every Thursday.

CRISIS DISTILLATION

Distillation plant
Industrial alcohol, funded by the taxpayer
The rather rickety copper-lined wooden tubs hiss and fill the air of the hangar-like shed with a pungent smell of Christmas. But the boiling red wine is not turning to Gluehwein, but industrial alcohol.

I'm in a distillery in the heart of Burgundy, one of France's most prestigious wine regions. If you're British, or a citizen of another EU country, that's your tax money going up, not in smoke, but in an aromatic waft of steam.

Europe is producing more wine than people want to drink. Most Europeans are drinking less wine, and those that aren't - like the British, Irish and Swedes - are turning to the New World. So the EU spends half a billion euros every year turning wine we don't buy into spirit that's not needed, so that the vineyard owners can make a living.

Burgundy is not a big offender, but there are tales of whole regions of France and Spain where what the EU calls "crisis distillation" has become a way of life. You produce cheap bad wines you know you cannot sell and - hey presto! - the EU buys it anyway.

OLD WINE, NEW LABELS

The commission has had enough and has come up with a plan to end this sort of distillation altogether.

It wants to pay wine makers to dig up one eighth of Europe's vineyards. It also wants them to deal with the reason that they aren't competing with the New World, by loosening the rules on what can and can't be done.

One thing in their sights is the law that stops more than half of European wines being labelled simply by grape variety and vintage. They would like to see "Chardonnay 2005" replace mind-boggling domaines and chateaux for the simpler wines.

PASSION AND HERITAGE

What I wanted to find was obvious. A sunburnt peasant clad in old-fashioned denim overalls, a Gitane mais stuck in his deeply lined face, grumbling about the possible fate of his beloved vines.

Therese Besancenot
Therese Besancenot: No sun-burnt peasant
Instead, I find myself in cool cellar surrounded by barrels and bottles talking to the distinctly fresh-faced and very engaging Therese Besancenot, who's the third generation to run her family wine firm, Domaine Besancenot. She looks even younger than her 23 years, but the most grizzled peasant couldn't enthuse more passionately about the subject.

She's strongly against the idea of grubbing up the vineyards. She admits they have trouble selling their wine but insists it is her heritage, her right, to go on producing. She says wine is not about money, it's a passion, it comes from the heart.

The government should tell people it's not dangerous to drink wine. At any rate, she says, they don't want to learn from the New World, which makes industrial wine.

"That is so very French," I tease her. She says: "Yes, it's French. We want to stay as we are, with what we know. We don't want lessons from other countries."

A LOSING BATTLE?

Looking down on rows and rows of pale green vines from his chateau above the village of Santenay, another grower, Jean-Francois Chapelle, is even more explicit.

Jean-Francois Chapelle
Jean-Francois Chapelle: Consumers need educating
He says there are two different products these days, vin and, "world wines". He uses the phrase in English, to underline his point. He says vin, which he admits is made by some growers in Australia and America, is fermented grapes.

"World wine" is alcohol with water, flavourings and acid added. Somewhat disingenuously he insists he's not against it. Just as he's not against watching Star Academy (the French version of Pop Idol or Fame Academy) with his kids, as long as it doesn't take over from Mozart.

He argues that what is needed is a better educated consumer, with a proper relationship with the producer, a new social contract. But perhaps he's fighting a losing battle. The sole toiler in his vineyard that afternoon wears a baseball cap advertising a Czech beer.

WAYS OF LIFE

This debate is one facet of the huge, slow-burning debate about the future of Europe.

Beaujolais nouveau
Beaujolais Nouveau? Make that a Gamay 2005
It is one reason why the French voted "No" in that referendum. For years they saw the European Union as an organisation led by a commission with a French world view and a mission, at least in part, to construct a safe haven against the winds of economic change...

Now it's a commission which seems to listen more to Central and Eastern Europeans and the British, and it is ordering them to dismantle that shelter. And, the cheek of it, a Danish commissioner is telling them how to make wine.

From an Anglo-Saxon point of view, the French attitude seems puzzling or irritating, an ostrich-like obstinacy in the face of hard economic facts. It is just illogical and wasteful to pay people to produce a product that has lost its market.

And then they confuse the economic with the cultural. Perhaps French wine does suffer in part because it's complex and variable, but thank goodness the New World has just about destroyed the snobbish mysticism about wine that was used more as a means of social exclusion than as a tool to aid enjoyment.

I hope that is forever in the dustbin of history, along with angst about which piece of cutlery to use first.

CHEESE V COMPUTERS

In any case, the real problem is the amount of undrinkable rubbish produced in Europe, rather than a fine product languishing because the masses are too ignorant to appreciate it.

Vieux Boulogne
On second thoughts, maybe French farms are best left alone
But I keep asking myself: "Do the French have a point?" France is what it is partly because of its agricultural landscape. How many of the British who flock down south every summer want that to change?

Actually, the French haven't done a bad job of balancing dynamic, world-class industrial and services companies with a more traditional way of life. They're just good at winding people up by pretending they're not interested in coarse money-making.

Every time I hear talk of "knowledge-based economies", I wonder if we really want Provence turned into Peterborough, and French agriculture so efficient that it produces cheese of the same quality as you get in the US.

This is not a debate that is resolved easily, and in the case of Europe's vineyards, I feel, the commission is going to run into a lot of opposition before it gets anything like its way.

Please use the postform below to comment on any of the issues in the diary.


Remember that New Zealand prior to 1984 had a heavily subsidised agricultural sector. Farmers were paid to produce lambs which nobody wanted. Those subsidies disappeared overnight and some farmers went to the wall. Most survived however, and realised that there was money to be made producing that which the market demanded and in a cost-effective way. Product quality and variation has flourished as a result... City taxpayers in the EU subsidising the lifestyle of the less efficient rural-dwelling French is neither democratic nor fair. It should be pointed out that no degree of subsidy elimination in France would make French cheese become as tasteless as American cheese: do not forget that the US dairy industry is even more heavily subsidised than its French equivalent.
William Wattie, São Paulo, Brazil

No one should be afraid of a free market, after all, this is the vehicle for progress and improvement. Many countries produce excellent wine, certainly Australia, Chile, France, Italy, New Zealand, Spain, South Africa and the USA are in the forefront of these producers. If there is a free market, the most popular wines will win every time. There will always be people who buy certain products for one reason or another, quite apart from the quality. In the long term, quality will always stand out and healthy competition is a necessary component to maintaining quality. Find a use for the wines which are unfit for consumption... maybe we can use this alcohol to produce energy?
Dave, The Woodlands, Texas USA

Tearing out vineyards is a rather stupid idea, as most of the land is NOT SUITABLE FOR MUCH ELSE. Rocky, perhaps on steep slopes, terraced to stop erosion. Anyway, as the vine itself has to be five (at least) years old before it is productive, and good wines are kept several years in caves before being drunk, wine-growing represents a large investment in time, effort and money. So once the land has been "cleared" it becomes good for nothing, even sheep don't eat rocks.
Shaun, Divonne, France

There is a fundamental issue at the heart of this - wine being only one example. We must move to a truly liberal Europe, where the only function of the centre is to remove obstacles from ordinary people (like unnecessary tariffs and taxes). I expect French wine did very nicely before EU subsidies. The current model takes money off the Euro taxpayer, to be spent by people who claim to know better than the rest of us what to do with it, and who end up in this case telling the French winegrowers what to do. Let us keep our money, end the subsidies, and stop directing people. If not, the European dream will gradually become nightmarish.
Ian Braithwaite, Codicote, Herts, UK

Subsidies of this type in an expanding Common Market are unsustainable. The inescapable conclusion is that Europe is postponing the inevitable by supporting the loss-making French wine industry. In any case it was recently reported on the BBC that a blind tasting of wines by European and American critics found Californian wines superior to French.
martin carnaffin, Nottingham, England

Who says that "new world" simple labelling automatically leads to increased sales? I work in the wine trade and I can assure you that "simple" doesn't mean more people will buy it.
Alex, Siena, Italy

The huge irony not mentioned here is the enormous level of support to British farmers that preserves, if not a way of life, then at least corporate farming, and a viable countryside. A prevailing idea now is to continue subsidies to self-consciously preserve a cherished landscape. At least the wine subsidies are not distorting world trade in favor of rich nations. Living in the "New World" I ironically prefer to buy French & Italian wines, I find them better value. But then I broke my back doing a few seasons of wine-picking in Languedoc, so I suppose I am that supposedly rare bird, the "educated consumer".
Michael Sherwin, Media, USA

The French wine sector is indeed in decline, not only due to decreased consumption, but also because of continued use of traditional production techniques (such as no irrigation and limitation of grape varieties) and a lack of willingness to adapt to consumer trends. It is certainly easier to grub up vines and produce easy drinking, affordable wines than it is to develop consumption whilst also promoting sensible alcohol intake. AOC is not a mark of quality, it is merely a geographical and varietal indication. Wouldn¿t the French and European producers be better off creating high-quality, small-volume wines which adhere to these traditional techniques whilst also taking advantage of an increasing demand for high-volume, easy drinking wines like those from the New World? Tradition and quality do not have to be sacrificed for the sake of competitiveness and profit!
Ross, London

I'm from Spain, and something similar is going to happen here. Many people here, mainly in Rioja, Castilla-León y Castilla La Mancha, live on wine production, so this kind of measure can provoke an economic downturn in those areas, taking into account that our countryside is ageing fast. I agree it is not sustainable to continue producing more wine than is demanded, especially poor-quality wine. I think the solution is to produce higher quality wines and put the emphasis on promotion.
Ruben P., Madrid, Spain

I'm lucky enough to live right next to a vineyard on the north shore of Lac Leman (Lake Geneva). Switzerland is not part of the EU and has taken a different approach. Vineyards are only permitted to produce a certain amount per hectare. Excess has to be avoided by early pruning, or the whole crop must go for grape juice instead of wine. Virtually all Swiss wine is sold within Switzerland; people buy locally. However the vineyards are still contracting, and unfortunately the only real alternative crop to grow is houses.
Mark Jeffrey, St-Prex, Switzerland

Wine lake? This is hardly a new topic - it has been going on for decades. (I am over 60 and seem to remember it being a topic when I was at school.) Here you have an example of the skill of the French. They have managed to persuade (threaten, cajole, blackmail?) the rest of Europe to support a lifestyle that many of us admire and occasionally enjoy whilst on holiday. They claim it is their birthright and that the rest of Europe should pay for it. The problem of course is that it cannot go on for ever... I love the French lifestyle and love going on holiday there and am happy in the short term to ease the burdens of my fellow Europeans as they come under more and more pressure, but in the end I would rather more of this money be spent on a better health service and education. Subsidies can only be effective in the short-term to allow people the time to adjust. They can't go on for ever.
Stephen Fox, Chester England

I gave up drinking French red wine in favour of Spanish long before I retired here, for one simple reason - value for money. There is nothing wrong with medium-priced French wine (we can't all afford the prices at the top end of the market where quality really tells) but there are New World wines available with similar quality at two-thirds of the French price. Unless the French producers become more competitive (efficient?) the only thing that will prevent their demise is the EU subsidy and how long can that last?
David Carr, Valencia Spain

Unfortunately a substantial amount of French wine is bland and tasteless even amongst some of the major vineyards! That's where part of the problem is. Also I would appreciate it if Mark Mardell didn't knock down England in the process. Many French towns are not that great and indeed Peterborough is far from being unattractive! Nearly 300,000 French citizens actually live in the UK... A certain France has got to start respecting other people, traditions and talents and realise that competition can be healthy and indeed stimulating. Just think about recent events when Spanish wine was intercepted at the Franco-Spanish border [a yearly celebration!!!] and destroyed by French wine producers. It is not acceptable and, indeed, encourages me to buy other world wines out of principle as well as taste!
philippe esclasse, folkestone, uk

Whilst still being paid for shoddy goods the French will continue to oblige and supply the same fare. The challenge for the French is to beat the New World vintners and produce good, consistent quality wines.
Jamie, London, England

OK, labelling in France could be a little easier to understand. But in Australia, when you buy Shiraz from South Eastern Australia, how do you know whether it is a good one or a bad one? The price? It is not always the most reliable measure. France shouldn't take all the lessons of the New World too seriously. Coonawarra have started campaigning to label their wines in order to distinguish themselves from the 'rest'. Why should French regions look to be like each other?

As for subsidies and purposeless distillation, why not let the law of supply and demand sort out the oversupply issue in Europe? Subsidies just hide the real issue and delay the pain of transition. If farmers really want to continue their way of life, they should strive to find a competitive solution.
SJ McFarlane, Amsterdam, Holland

French wine producers should stick to their most important sustainable competitive advantage: tradition. A Bordeaux evidently doesn't taste like an Australian shiraz, having a little more earthy taste. And that's good. Now customers want New World full-bodied wines, but they may get more interested by Euro-style wine in a couple of years. Wasting the traditional knowledge is a very dumb idea.
Jean Thibaudeau, St-Georges, Canada

Mark Mardell makes an excellent point - we Brits seem to have the upper hand in the EU with our market-led realism, love of free markets and general disdain for subsidy being shared widely with other countries, especially in the newer intake. Yet our lifestyle aspiration, and the health and food advice we get from the media, seems to be for the small-scale, lovingly created produce that is only really possible in France, Spain and Italy, because the cosseted and heavily subsidised agricultural industries there can only exist on the scale they do when the subsidies and cosseting exist on that scale.

Here in the UK, the best of our producers are as good as anyone abroad, but decades of neglect by government mean they are in a tiny minority compared to 'industrial' farmers & food producers, with all the implications for the environment and for our health. We need to decide what we value most - cheap and largely nasty food, or more expensive, good-quality food. Because the one thing Mark Mardell DOESN'T mention about subsidies is the effect of dumping the excess produce of the EU (and the USA) on the Third World, distorting markets and crippling their economies. We simply cannot continue to subsidise our agriculture, or any other industry, so that prices for high-quality goods are artificially lowered. Put simply, our cost of living is a bit too low.
Julian Smith, Swindon UK

The main obstacle to the success of downmarket French wine is French regulations on the matter, such as restrictions on sugar content. In France this is capped at 0.02% compared to New World wines frequently weighing in at 0.04%: the higher sugar content tends to mask shortcomings in the wine. Along with this, the abandoning of caves cooperatives in France by growers in favour of starting their own label, in order to get a better margin, has led to increased inconsistency not found in the New World wines. Less regulation by the French government and a move away from downmarket chateaux back to the cooperative system would soon have the French industry competing again. That said, if France is not prepared to adapt, then they have to accept that there is no future for an industry with no demand. I'm off for a glass of wine - Français, bien sûr.
Adam Penny, Pellegrue, France

Production subsidies always end up damaging farmers rather than helping them. They encourage farmers to produce far more than the market requires, at a substandard quality. They also stifle innovation, dull marketing skills and increase the cost of land and inputs. It is no coincidence that the best-selling, most innovative wines come from the unsupported vineyards of Australia, New Zealand and South America, rather than the backward-looking moribund slopes of France. Now that production subsidies have been removed in the UK and replaced with environmental payments, we can look forward to some great new British meat and cereal products that capture the imagination of the consumer.
Cedric Porter, Editor of Farm Business Magazine, UK

A great article! Do I think the EU should continue spending my taxes supporting food/drink that nobody wants? No Way! The UK now produces over 700 different varieties of excellent cheeses. The French remain at their average of 300(ish). We produce countless different varieties of ale and probably would wine if we had the climate. My point being the UK has had to diversify and rediscover its agriculture (especially after the BSE and Foot & Mouth outbreaks) to meet the requirements of an ever more demanding consumer. The British farmers have had harsh lessons to learn and possibly the French farmers should learn from the mistakes of others before they have to learn themselves, the hard way.
Rob Hamling, Tbilisi, Georgia

Leave the French alone. They have a right to make wine and cheese as they make it. They produce the best. New world wines, though nice, do not compare to French wine, full stop. The EU should just remove the subsidy. Therefore those wines makers have to improve or die.... The EU should remove this stupid situation where farmers & wine growers are subsidised. The price in the shops should reflect the true cost of the product.
iain ferguson, Bristol uk

If anything should be subsidised I think it should be quality, diversity and value to the consumer. syd.
syd goodchild, Adelaide, Australia

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