Wine lovers in Britain and elsewhere in Europe may soon be drinking bottles of Château Dead Man's Gulch or, more likely, Château Napa Valley.
Despite furious opposition in France, the European Commission is considering a request from Washington that American producers be allowed to sell wines abroad labelled with spurious château titles. The EC postponed a decision last week, following French protests. But most other EU countries – including Britain – favour a change in the rules.
Wine producers in the Bordeaux area, home of the "château" label, say this would amount to a "betrayal of heritage". In France, they say, the title château can only be bestowed on a wine produced entirely in one vineyard that has won the right to a local or regional title or "appellation". In the US, they say the label can be used on bottles produced in wine "factories" with grapes blended from a dozen different vineyards.
"This is about defending tradition and quality," said Laurent Gapenne, who owns the Château de Laville and is president of the Fédération des grands vins de Bordeaux. "The Americans want to churn out château wines from grapes grown in any old place which, obviously, cuts the price."
EC officials say the issue is part of a wider negotiation that could generate advantages for European wine sales in the US. American exporters had a temporary right to sell château wines abroad from 2006 to 2009. In return for permanent rights – especially lucrative in China – Washington is considering long-standing EU demands for stricter rules on the marketing of US wines within America under generic European names. Current US law allows wines to be labelled as, for example, "American Burgundy", "Californian Champagne", or "American Chablis".
The roughly 3,000 Bordeaux châteaux include aristocratic names such as Château Petrus and Château Cheval Blanc which sell for thousands of euros a bottle. They also include hundreds of obscure château wines sold in French supermarkets.