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Fears grow for watered-down wine following Defra reforms

Published:  18 October, 2023

In what the government describes as a Brexit benefit, imported wine will soon have the option to be blended, carbonated, sweetened, and de-alcoholised in-market.

The changes, which are due to come into effect early next year, are part of a swathe of governmental reforms said to remove the burden of “red tape inherited from the EU” for the wine industry.

Under the new laws, ‘wine-based’ drinks ranging from 0% to 8.5% abv, will be permitted to be labelled as ‘wine’. As per rules inherited from the EU, wine currently has to contain at least 8.5% abv to be marketed as such.

However, what the reforms fail to acknowledge is that for the large majority of consumers, it would be misleading to use the term ‘wine’ without reference to ‘de-alcoholisation’ to market wines that have undergone post-production processes to lower alcohol. 

The ability to de-alcoholise wine in-market is especially prescient as a result of the duty changes which will tax alcohol incrementally according to its strength from February 2025, when all wines between 11.5% to 14.5% abv will increase by 20% or £0.44 per 75cl bottle (53p incl VAT).

The concern is that these changes will cause an influx of lower abv wine to enter the UK market, to the detriment of quality and diversity of choice for the consumer. The situation could be further exacerbated by a new wine certification scheme, which will allow any wine to show a variety and vintage without having to apply for the right to do so. Whilst this may reduce time, bureaucracy and cost for producers, it might encourage bottlers to present cheap bulk as premium ‘Sauvignon Blanc’.

However, the rules do allow for a fairer playing field in some cases. For example, wines with a protected designation of origin such as PDO or PGI will no longer be able to have a lower minimum abv (4.5%) than wines without (8.5%). According to the WSTA, 50% of the wine consumed in this country comes from outside the EU, where there are fewer designations of origin.

Whilst some of the changes have been welcomed, such as the removal of restrictive importer labelling and the scraping of outdated rules around bottle shapes and foil caps, the trade remains anxious about the prospect of watered-down wine dominating the mainstream market. 

Simon Stannard, European and International Affairs director, WSTA, told Harpers: “Reform of the EU rules was needed in particular to better reflect the UK’s status as the world’s second-largest importer of wine (by volume and value).

“The sector is working hard to produce lower, low and no-alcohol wines to respond to consumer demand and a number of the proposed reforms would make the current production rules simpler and easier to understand.

“However, removing the minimum abv for wine risks misleading the consumer if labelling rules do not require a full and accurate description of the product. If a wine has been de-alcoholised or partially de-alcoholised it needs to be described as such and should not simply be described as wine.”

The WSTA has highlighted its intention to work with the government in the coming weeks and months to agree on labelling rules which ensure consumers are informed about the wine and wine products they buy.