German and Austrian wine-growers have defeated European Union attempts to ban the practice of adding sugar to wine to increase the alcohol content, a move that could have removed cheaper brands from the market.
In Britain, lower priced German wines – epitomised by labels such as Blue Nun and Black Tower – rely on crystal sugar, which is added during fermentation to increase sweetness and alcoholic strength. Central European wine growers say it is necessary because their region enjoys less sun and is on average cooler than wine-growing areas further south.
Earlier this year, in an attempt to reform Europe's already hugely bloated wine sector, the European Commission put forward proposals to ban sugar additives, insisting that they would help cut excess wine production, which is predicted to be 15 per cent of output by 2010.
But the German, Austrian and Czech wine lobbies have now managed to scupper initial efforts to enforce a sugar ban. At a meeting of the European Parliament's agriculture committee earlier this week, MEPs from the three countries voted overwhelmingly against prohibition.
Elisabeth Jeggle, a German conservative MEP MP, welcomed the decision, saying that it "recognises the differing climatic, geographic and structural conditions of the European wine-growing industry".
The reform proposal will now have to go before a full session of the European Parliament and the governments of individual member states before a final decision is taken.
Germany's Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper welcomed the decision as a victory and accused the EU agriculture commissioner, Mariann Fischer Boel, of orchestrating a campaign against adding sugar to wine.
"This is a tried and tested practice in the production of lower quality wines in Germany and Austria and nobody has complained about it so far, " the paper said.
"What do the bureaucrats want next – a warning on bottles that 'alcohol damages health' or a EU ban on CO2 emissions from champagne?"
The EU had wanted alcohol levels in wine to be increased by no more than 2 per cent and only by adding sugar derived from significantly more expensive grape-juice concentrates. The current practice allows for alcohol levels to be raised by 3.5 per cent with crystal sugar additives.
The decision is another boost for the German wine industry, which is enjoying big increases in sales and profits this year as a result of booming exports to Britain and the US and a rediscovered thirst for the riesling as opposed to the ubiquitous chardonnay grape.
Figures from the German Wine Institute this week showed that German wine sales had increased by 25 per cent in the first six months of this year compared with the same period in 2006.
The most important export market was Britain, where 82 million litres were drunk in 2006. Not all of it was Blue Nun. Sales of German wines priced at £10 a bottle or more have risen by a staggering 125 per cent over the past two years, with some London restaurants charging as much as £595 a bottle.