"Our wine sector is essentially the best in the world - no one doubts that." With these unwittingly contentious words, the European Union agricultural commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel sat down. You could be forgiven for thinking that this might have been an exam question set by the board of the Institute of Masters of Wine to MW hopefuls from around the world. It would certainly have been interesting to see their response. Would European students get a pass mark for agreeing, and those from the New World be penalised for taking Ms Fischer Boel to task?
Maybe, as she addressed the Agriculture Committee of the EU, she meant to say "the priciest" rather than "the best", considering the £4,500 a case currently being asked for the 2005 Château Margaux. Or "the biggest", accounting, as Europe does, for roughly two-thirds of the world's wine production. If it's so marvellous, MW candidates from California might ask, how come consumption of New World wine is growing in the UK at the expense of German white, Italian red and French wine of both hues? Why do Australia, California, South Africa, Chile and Argentina account for five bottles of wine sold in the UK compared with four from France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Portugal, Hungary and Bulgaria combined? And what does "best in the world" mean when the average UK price of a bottle of wine from France is £4.09, from Spain £3.66, Italy £3.44 and a paltry £2.55 for Germany compared with New Zealand's £5.94 and Australia's £4.28?
Perhaps if "Euro-wine" were the best, there would be less need for the radical changes now being proposed by the commissioner. Aimed not at the limited-edition 2005 Château Margaux but at an ever-expanding wine lake expected to reach the equivalent of 3.6 billion bottles by 2010 (and that's just the surplus), the proposals are geared to delivering root and branch reform to a system whose roots and branches have become impossibly tangled. Bad enough that we have just granted France and Italy £90m for crisis distillation (this year for the first time they are allowed to turn even appellation contrôlée wines into industrial alcohol); or that our wine consumption is falling by 100 million bottles a year as young consumers turn to beer and other drinks. Worse still, as Ms Fischer Boel points out, is that "our competitors are snapping at our heels". While wine exports from the EU have gone up a fifth, those from the US have multiplied by four and from Australia and Chile by 19 each. "Many of those exports ... are taking a growing share of the EU market." And there's the rub.
So what's the Danish commissioner proposing? First, the EU would give a bonus to uncompetitive producers, and a fillip to the competitive, to reduce the current vineyard area of 3.4 million hectares by 400,000 hectares, an area two and half times the size of Australia's vineyards. In seven years' time, you or I would be allowed to plant vines with no need for planting rights, if we were so inclined. She would allow the greater flexibility that is inherent in New World-style winemaking practices and much clearer labelling. She would do away with the stupid restrictions on putting grape variety or vintage on the label of table wines. She would abolish chaptalisation - the use of sugar to boost alcohol in winemaking. It's hard to argue with any of these proposals, but let's hope the commissioner doesn't get bogged down in red tape if she wants to be able to assert that the EU wine sector is not just "essentially the best" but genuinely the best in the world.