Brussels has proposed the destruction of hundreds of thousands of acres of European vineyards in an attempt to drain the EU "wine lake" and reconquer markets lost to the New World.
In proposals which will be hotly disputed in wine-producing countries from France to Bulgaria, Brussels wants to pay producers of unsaleable wines to "grub up" their old vines. And from 2013, national restrictions on the planting of different varieties of vines would be lifted to encourage "competitive" growers to shift to types of wine more in demand from consumers. The practice of "sugaring" immature wines or -chaptalisation - which increases yield and strength in more northerly vineyards would be banned.
Part of the EU budget for supporting the wine industry would be shifted to a campaign to promote European wines on the international market. The distillation of surplus wine into industrial alcohol or disinfectants - which costs [euro]500 million ([pound]340m) a year - would end from 2009. The European Union's annual "wine lake" of unsold wines is more than 13 million hectolitres - equivalent to about 1.7 billion standard-size bottles.
Mariann Fischer Boel, the European commissioner for agriculture and rural development, said the proposal would "boost competition, drain the infamous wine lakes and make things more simple".
The [euro]1.3bn budget for the wine industry would be unchanged but would be redirected away from propping up "failing" producers. "Until now we have been spending in an inefficient and indefensible way," Ms Fischer Boel said.
The Commission's proposals were criticised - even before they were announced - as a lurch towards the so-called "industrial" mass production of "Coca-Cola" wines. Some wine produc-ers' organisations in France and elsewhere said that they represented a betrayal of age- old, European winemaking traditions to market forces and "ultra- capitalism".
In fact, much of what the Commission is proposing is already happening, even in countries with fiercely defended local wine- making traditions such as France. The thrust of the Brussels plans is to help the lower reaches of the European wine market - not the thriving, top-quality wines - to compete with the simply labeled New World wines made from the most popular grape varieties, such as Chardonnay or Merlot.
Much of the French, Spanish and Italian wine industry is already willing, in some cases eager, to take this approach. But there are fierce divisions between, and even within, wine-growing regions. The ban on the sugaring of wine would, for example, be very popular with southern French growers and disastrous for producers of cheaper red wine in Bordeaux.
How much, and when, the EU plan would affect wine drinkers is unclear. The proposals will be fiercely opposed by some governments in the EU council of ministers. Much will finally depend on decisions still to be taken at national and regional level on the future of wine-making in Europe. Although world wine consumption is rising rapidly, European producers have been partially pushed out of their traditional markets, such as Britain, by cheap, reliable, undemanding brands from Australia, Chile and other so-called New World vineyards.
Younger drinkers in particular find these wines more reliable, and easier to identify, than the jumble of chateau labels and appellations from France and, to a less extent, Italy and Spain. There has also …