EC rules 'handicap' English vineyards

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(First Edition)

AN UNFAIR tax regime and strict EC regulations are seriously compromising English wine growers' ability to compete with their continental rivals, it was claimed yesterday.

John Fellowes, president of the Country Landowners' Association, told a meeting of the lobby group in East Sussex that it would be pressing the Government to remove the 'unfair straitjacket' threatening the industry's future.

'In France there is duty of 1p a bottle on wine, compared with pounds 1 in this country,' Mr Fellowes said. 'There is a concern among producers in the south of England over the amount of wine imported on a personal-use basis. With the single market, individuals can import up to 90 litres each. There is no duty on wine in Germany, Italy and Spain.'

Modern English wine growing really began in 1967 with the formation of the English Vineyard Association, the industry's regulatory body. Today there are about 260 commercial vineyards out of 450 in England and Wales. Production of predominantly white wine has jumped from 99,880 litres a year in 1979 to 1.5 million in 1991, with a high of 2.2 million in 1989.

As the world's northern-most wine producers, British growers must battle against a cool climate along with uncertain summers and autumns. Early ripening and a resistance to rot rule out several of the grapes used on the Continent. Many English vineyards are forced to plant hardy and quick ripening hybrid varieties, such as Seyval Blanc, which accounts for between 25 and 30 per cent of output.

Unfortunately, EC regulations dictate that once UK production reaches its annual quota of 2.5 million litres, growers may only plant new vines for the production of 'quality wine'. This means no hybrids. Gay Biddlecombe, director of St George's Winery in Waldron, East Sussex, says that 'for such a young industry, putting us into a straitjacket is really too much'.

But the prospects of effecting any real change in the current regime look slim. The EVA talks in terms of an 'industry' employing about 1,000 people. Output is now growing by 14 per cent a year, making it one of the most dynamic agricultural sectors. But the base from which it is expanding is minute. Vineyards in Alsace, a prolific though smaller French wine producing region, cover 32,000 acres; Morocco boasts 56,000 acres; and even Israel has 7,000, compared with 2,480 in Britain. Home-grown wine accounts for 0.2 per cent of the pounds 4bn UK wine market.

David Carr Taylor, owner of Carr Taylor Vineyards in Sussex, believes the British are prejudiced: 'If people taste one bad French wine, they'll try another. If they taste a bad English one, they'll give up.'