Saturday, July 19, 2008

Bacchus in Decline

The plan is to make less wine: drink it while you can

Every now and then in journalism, a metaphor pops up that is almost too perfect to use.

I had that feeling last night, writing up a report for the print edition about the European Commission's plans to drain a growing "wine lake" of unwanted plonk from France, Italy, Spain and Portugal (though other countries are also offenders).

On every level, this wine crisis is the perfect metaphor for Europe's current economic woes.

The central problem is that European winemakers do not want to live in a free market world. They are addicted to subsidies, with hundreds of millions of pounds spent every year propping up prices which duly frees them from the pesky requirement of making wine that paying customers might want to buy.

In contrast, sales of easy-going wine from the New World are exploding with Australian wine exports increasing 19-fold in the past 15 years. In Britain, Australian wines have captured a quarter of the British market and it is easy to forget that not so long ago they were nowhere (remember the Monty Python Australian wine sketch, with its Nuits-Saint-Wagga-Wagga et al?).

In recent years, one in six bottles of EU wine has ended up being distilled into petrol or industrial disinfectant, at vast cost to the taxpayer. The no-nonsense Mariann Fischer Boel, a Dane who is EU agricultural commissioner, has had enough, and unveiled plans for a "root and branch" reform (her pun).

The Commission plan is to grub up nearly a million acres (400,000 hectares) of wines, pay farmers to leave the business, allow modern production techniques (like "oaking" cheaper wines with string bags of wood chips) and simplify labeling rules. (Under current French law, for example, you cannot market cheap and cheerful Chardonnay 2006, if it is made with grapes from more than one region of France it is actually illegal to mention the grape variety on wines that are not from a specific geographical area).

Above all, the plan is to make less wine, and better wine, that people might want to buy. Being realistic sorts, who know their plan has to get past subsidy-addicted national governments, the Commission hastened to add that they would not be cutting one centime from the pounds 900 million a year EU subsidy budget for wine just trying to shift it away from boiling away unwanted stuff.

And what was the reaction in France, the world's largest wine producer, and subsidy junkie par excellence? A flat Non from the agriculture ministry, and protests from farmers, throwing around accusations of "ultra-liberalism", and the destruction of their sacred cultural traditions (which apparently include making bad wine, for sale to the taxpayer).

So, what does all this tell us? Well, yes it tells us that too many Europeans have a problem with the free market.

French wine is losing market share in Britain, in part, because too much of the stuff they make is expensive, and not as pleasant to drink as New World stuff. The labels are complicated, and unless you recognise an individual chateau, it is almost impossible to know whether one random Bordeaux is better than another and it is no good judging by whether something is a grand cru or premier cru, because the designations have not been updated for years, and may bear no resemblance to reality.

The parallels with other sectors of European trade are obvious the red tape, the lack of transparency, the cosy archaisms that are hostile to outsiders but reward existing players, you name it.

And still the French resist all change and get away with it, because public money is spent insulating them from the effects of their stubbornness.

Local chauvinism also plays a role here. German winemakers get away with churning out so much horrid stuff (as well as some great wine), because German consumers loyally buy German wines, and would not think of doing anything else. The same thing happens all over Europe just go to Greece or Portugal, and watch people paying nine euros a bottle for grim local reds, when they could have something much nicer from somewhere else, for half that (yes, there is some great Greek and Portuguese wine too, but I have had much more luck with white than red, on the whole).

Britain, on the other hand, is in the happy state of being a non wine-making nation (yes, yes I know there is English and Welsh wine now, but I have never tasted a decent one yet). So as with so much else, globalisation is the way in our wine stores, and supermarket shelves. Value for money is king, as supermarket buyers scour the world for Uruguayan gems, or the best new growths from South Africa.

It is hard not to see a parallel with continental protectionism in so many other fields. In Britain, we have been through the painful process of losing national champions to foreign buyers, whether car makers or breweries or whatever. And now British consumers are able to choose from a far wider variety of foreign-owned products than their continental cousins just look at the multinational mix of cars on UK roads, or the astonishing number of foreign beers on sale in London bars. Choice is king, and value for money should logically follow.

And yet, and yet.

Just when it all looks so very simple, ha-ha bye bye sleepy old Europe, hello New World hard work we're your British chums, some awkward facts intrude.

I have a hunch that the fact that Britons buy so much New World wine is not entirely the fault of European wine-makers. The truth is, a lot of New World wine is beginners' wine sweet, gloopy jam in a glass, with the labels helpfully in English.

No surprise that it does so well in Britain, where wine-drinking is a new phenomenon for many buyers, and people cannot be bothered with foreign languages. There is nothing wrong with easy drinking wine I have no time for wine snobs who want to make a mystery of what is basically squashed grapes. I just mean that some great European wine is an acquired taste, which more British drinkers may acquire, as wine-drinking beds in as a tradition. It's like British beer you start as a teenager with cold, tasteless lager, and only slowly learn to enjoy real ale.

One final awkward fact, which fits the metaphor exactly, too. The French wine-makers who get all the media attention are the bone-in-the-nose militants, resisting all talk of the marketplace, or changing their ways. But quietly, and without attracting nearly as much attention, French and other European wine makers are already making lots of great, cheap wine designed to compete directly with the New World (some of it with the help of New World winemakers). It is the same with French and European capitalism in general. The French are the biggest obstacles to reform, time and again but they are also fantastically good at business, and globalisation.

French wine makes up a fair amount of the wine drunk in the Rennie household, and makes it into my cellar on the basis of solid value for money. My philosophy of wine-buying is simple: buy the best possible wine for under five euros a bottle. I buy single bottles of likely-looking reds and whites, and if a given wine is good twice or three times in a row, I buy it in big quantities.

To end this long end-of-the-week post, I humbly offer my fellow Belgian residents the fruits of this painstaking research. I welcome your recommendations in return. A warning, as the parent of two small children, my shopping is done in the local discount supermarket, Colruyt, so if that is not your style, stop reading here. Top red of the week: Château Mauleon Côtes du Roussillon-Villages 2004 (France). Cheap but chirpy. Top white of the week is from Argentina: Michel Torrino Torrontes. It tastes like flowers.

David Rennie