Brussels tries to prune rampant vine

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EUROPE is sinking into a wine lake so deep that yesterday the EC announced drastic measures to drain it. By the end of the century the lake, now 2.2 billion litres deep, will be twice as big. There will be 15 spare bottles of wine for every person in the Community.

The reason for the surplus? More imports from such countries as Australia and Chile, diminishing consumption and over-production. Attempts to staunch the flow in the Eighties involved distilling surpluses, a process that was expensive, difficult to police and thus open to fraud. 'The premiums were so attractive that many vineyards are producing simply to sell for distillation,' complained the EC Commissioner for Agriculture, Rene Steichen, yesterday.

Nearly 60 per cent of this year's pounds 1.2bn EC wine budget will be spent on disposing of the wine Europeans cannot drink. Under plans announced yesterday, surplus grapes will still be boiled down but the benefits to the grower will be reduced. The Commission recommends cracking down on production, since new technology now means it is almost impossible to produce a really bad vintage. It wants to control boosting wine artificially and to introduce preventive measures such as paying growers more to dig up vineyards. But the older, less productive vines tend to be destroyed.

More controversially, the Commission has suggested national quotas. Surpluses would be distilled, with governments meeting part of the cost. Quality wines will have to be included in the calculation but need not be destroyed if a country can keep overall production within its quota. Britain does not produce enough wine to be under threat.

The Commission, which will need authorisation from agriculture ministers for its plans, says there is no other choice. Community consumption varies from the 66.5 litres quaffed by Frenchmen each year to a mere 12 litres in the UK, but consumption throughout the EC is declining by 200 million litres a year.