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LIVE NEWS BLOG: Trade split over government's low-alcohol plans

Published:  16 August, 2013

3.30pm, Friday, August 16 The wine and spirits trade is split over the government's renewed efforts to encourage producers to manufacture lower-alcohol alternatives in a bid to reduce alcohol abuse among the middle-classes.

UK ministers reportedly want the European Commission to change the official EU definition of wine to include products below 8.5% abv that have had alcohol artificially removed or reduced. Currently, wines below 8.5% abv can only be labelled as such if they are naturally lower in strength, like Moscato.

Health minister Earl Howe has reportedly briefed the Daily Telegraph that the government would "continue to work hard" to press the case for reduced-alcohol and de-alcoholised wines to sit alongside their full-strength counterparts in EU legislation.

Giles Cooke MW, wine development director at Alliance Wines thinks the government's move should be "resisted". He said: "Only by persuading retailers and consumers to Drink Less, Drink Better will we tackle the alcohol issue in a sustainable way."

He added: "We should also be concerned that in the long run, if the government were successful in reducing the alcohol level as described, the current advantages of lower duty on wines below 5.5% are also likely to be removed which would put retail listings in jeopardy or place further pressure on producers and distributors."

David Gleave MW, managing director, Liberty Wines, agreed: "If the government's aim is achieved, we'll be dealing with the consequences for quite some time to come."

He added, low-alcohol wines that have had the alcohol removed and that are not naturally produced have failed to take off because they "don't pass the consumer taste test". "The process of de-alcoholising wines in order to arrive at a low alcohol product is a bastardisation of the wine.  I don't think it will do anything to lower the amount people drink; if anything, it will further commoditise wine, remove it from its rightful place at the table and turn it into an alcoholic beverage that is drunk so people get drunk."

The move has come at a time the trade is split over how the category should be developed and when low-alcohol wine sales in particular (0.5%-5.5%) are in double-digit decline. Nielsen figures show wines up to 5.5% abv have fallen by -21% volume and -15% value in the past 12 weeks (20/07/13) and  -8% volume and -7% value for the same period.

WSTA support

Miles Beale, the Wine & Spirit Trade Associations chief executive is backing the government's proposed move. "When it comes to promoting lower alcohol alternatives we need to focus on removing unecessary regulations which restrict producers' ability to respond to consumer demand.

"That is why the WSTA supports a change to existing European regulations which currently prevent producers from removing any more than 2% abv from wine," he argued. 

A government spokesperson said it wants to encourage alcohol manufacturers to make lower alcohol alternatives and the rules do not help its cause.

"We will continue our efforts to change EU wine rules, to allow all wine producers to make and market lower alcohol products. This will help to help promote healthier choices and tackle the serious harm alcohol causes."

The latest round of EU negotiations over the Common Agricultural Policy failed to reach an agreement on redefining wines to include alcohol free drinks, due to opposition from other wine-producing countries

The nature of EU law making means the UK would need other EU member states, and especially some of the larger countries in the bloc, to agree to a rule change on wine.

Australian Vintage, which has this month launched a 5.5% abv Miranda Summer Light wine range in the UK - with alcohol reduced using the spinning cone technique - estimates that the country's low-alcohol category is worth £42.8 million in the off-trade alone.

Long-running debate

There has been a long-running debate around tax on lower-alcohol wines. In the UK at present, tax on still wines is the same for anything above 5.5% abv and not exceeding 15% abv. Some in the industry would like to see a new tax band for still wines between 5.5% abv and around 8.5% or 9% abv.

Research group Wine Intelligence said in a recent report on low-alcohol wines: "The tax system in Europe distorts the category, by incentivising the production of very low-alcohol wine products of 5.5% abv and below, at which point the product quality all too often fails to meet even modest expectations."