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Q&A: Mariann Fischer Boel

Published:  23 July, 2008

The EU wine reform will likely be implemented in August 2008, but first it has to be approved by the Council of Ministers of Agriculture taking place in Brussels on December 17th and 19th.

Pilar Santamara talked to the Commissioner for Agriculture, Mariann Fischer Boel, the Danish lady in charge of the wine reform package, and discusses the most controversial points behind the Commission's proposal.

Some agricultural organisations claim that grubbing up vines and the liberalisation of the planting rights will have economical and social consequences as certain areas will see producers moving to other parts of the country where it is easier and cheaper to produce wine.

First of all, I think it is a very fascinating area to discuss wine. There is a lot of tension and a lot of cultural linkages. So I actually experienced and learnt quite a lot during this difficult exercise. I know that from the very beginning the idea of introducing the grubbing up scheme was received with some tension, but when I have the possibility to explain what is actually the idea behind it, then I think the understanding of the nature of the scheme becomes more clear. Actually, it is a social scheme because when we abolish the distillation measures in the reform there will be wine producers that are now producing wine exclusively for low quality and for distillation that will not find any outlet for their wine. They will probably make their calculations and see whether the grubbing up is attractive from an economic point of view and I presume we are looking to the possibility to add to this scheme the early retirement from the rural development policy. This is an option. It is not compulsory.

If you have a business that is working, you make money and you make a wine which is good, people want to buy it and drink it. Why should you leave the sector? No way! Then you will stay in business but I know there are regions in Europe, I won't name them, that would rather see the scheme to be in force yesterday than tomorrow because their economy is really bad. They are really asking for the scheme. So "this idea of grubbing up is horrible", those who don't like, stay out!

We have a grubbing up scheme of three years and this gives the possibility for those that are close to pensioning, quite a lot of them, to stop because they don't see any future. They don't see any future in the vineyard because the quality is not good enough. You can go to the Southern part of France and ask whether they consider this an option and those that are doing well, producing good wine, good table wine, good wine with geographic indication, they will not stop.

But liberalisation can lead producers to other parts of the flat country, and, therefore provoke a standardisation of the flavours. .

You cannot do that if you are a geographical indication area, there are limitations for what you can do. There are limitations on the increase of this area. You cannot simply, in Champagne, see an explosion of the production of Champagne.

Why is there a need to change the current labelling system?

What we want to do is to give the possibility to wine producers to put the vintage year and the grape variety on the label of the bottle of the table wine. This is actually our intention because we can see a huge success of wine from Chile, South Africa..And they are exactly doing so. They are selling the bottle more on the grape variety than on the geographical indication.

Many people are happy with this because it allows the European wine producers to do exactly what our competitors from outside Europe are doing. Why should we let these markets go to Chile instead of going to Europe? You should go to a supermarket and see how people buy wine. They are very often buying the grape: Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc. Instead of looking where they come from. So that is why Australia may be a very good example. They have been extremely successful in the European market, together with South Africa and Chile. And that is exactly the way they are promoting their wines. They label the year and they label the wine variety and consumers love this.

Do you want for Europe a copy of the new world wine system?

No, no. It is just a possibility for the wine producers to label the wine as our competitors do and this does not destroy our long and strong tradition on geographical indications with all the labels we have seen for the very well know wine districts in Europe.

Will the ban on sugar for enrichment go ahead?

The most controversial proposal was (banning) the sugar. I wanted to get rid of sugar in wine production. I thought sugar was not acceptable in wine production. But there are now 20 member states who don't agree with me. So I will not be able to change this. I can only do what member states allow me to do. Therefore I have to take notes and I have to see if there are other ways to find a political compromise.

Are you proposing any alternatives?

I will tell you when I have the final negotiations with the member states in the Council of December. I cannot give you all my tactics for negotiating now.

Why does the Commission want to be responsible for authorising new oenological practices?

Otherwise you may have huge differences in the way wine is produced in Europe and I don't think this benefits the strong position of European wine worldwide.

We are not saying we are going to introduce any new practices that are not recognised by the International Organisation of Vine and Wine (OIV). But we say that it will speed up the process if the Commission has the competences deciding which OIV practices we want to have in Europe. It is an efficiency measure to try and speed up the process, and wood chips is a good example. It took years and years for the Council to decide one way or the other and then, at the end, the regions themselves can decide whether to use or not wood chips.

We are going to, selectively, choose the ones (wine making practices) in order to give our wine producers the possibility if they want to make a bigger range of products. Not telling them they have to use practices they are using in Australia. It is just give them an extra choice. It is still up to the different appellations to decide what the definition is of that particular area. It is not our goal to make the wine making practices completely the same in Europe as somewhere else. An industrialised wine production is not our goal.

But the European Parliament (EP) is against the Commission having this competence

Of course the Parliament is against it because if it becomes a Commission's competence, then they (the EP) will loose their power because after 2009 if the new Constitution Treaty is rectify then there will be co-decision between Parliament and Commission, which is not like this today in agriculture issues. And then of course they see the chance to be more influential on the procedures with the wine production and this could mean that it could take years to change because you need to negotiate between the Commission and the Parliament, and if you really need a change in wine production you have to wait maybe two years and this is in detriment of the sector.

If sales of European quality wines are increasing, and quality wine is produced following strict production rules, why is there a need of changing the designation of European Quality Wine?

If this should be the case, why do we see a huge increase in imports? Consumers do like import wines. They love to buy Chilean wines because they get value for money. They obviously want the South African and the Australian ones so imports are increasing. And why do people buy imported wine instead European wine? That is because they get value for money.

If Europe accounts for 60% of the world wine consumption, isn't it necessary to concentrate promotion effort in the internal market?

We have clearly realised that we need to promote our wine stronger at the export markets. We have included in our proposal 120 million euros every year for promoting wines on the new markets out of Europe. In Europe, you have to promote moderate consumption because we need to work together with the Commissioner for Health and we cannot just promote drinking. I think we are increasing the budge slightly - 9 million euros per year. But we have to take into account that there are young people that need to learn good habits.

What about promoting specific marketing measures for European wine taking into account its particularities?

I love European wine. I won't tell you which country I prefer but I really like European wine. Normally, I won't buy wine from outside the EU but I am not the only one that buys wine. You can then ask to the European companies to promote their links to an area, their culture, their traditions And things like that. Fine. That would be an excellent idea but not just promote drinking.

So why promoting in Europe wines from outside Europe?

We are not doing it. They are doing it. People can also promote their own European wines in Europe with private money. No one is stopping them. But we cannot do it with public money. I have been talking to wine companies in Europe and they are not interested in promoting drinking. They are interested in promoting moderate consumption of wine and then to tell all about the nice things of European wine.

Which impact will the abolition of aid for distilling potable alcohol will have?

If you take the brandy, for example, it will mean that the price for a bottle of brandy will increase by 40 cents per litre. So it is not dramatic.

Why the urgent of a wine reform instead waiting an agreement from all parties involved?

We have a problem because the planting rights system under the present legal proposal is expiring in 2010 and, if we do not agree on a new reform now the planting rights system will disappear in two years and that is not what the wine sector wants. They want it (liberalisation of the planting rights) postpone to the later states. That is a clear indication from our side that we need to find a solution otherwise they will face problems with the abolition of the planting rights.

Are you optimistic about having an agreement on the Council of December?

Yes. I am bringing a Christmas tree to the Council of December, so we can stay (discussing the reform) over Christmas if necessary, while we drink European wine.

Is wine a cultural or an industrial product?

When I buy wine myself I always look where it is coming from. It may be produced also in Europe in a more industrialised way than you saw 30/40 years ago so what is important to me is the origin. It is sometimes as well the grape variety, not as much the vintage year because the quality is much more at the same level that what you saw 30 years back when there were more differences in the different vintages.

Is the actual Proposal protecting the European traditional wine making practices?

Why we should prevent our producers from using the same techniques as our competitors? We don't stop those who want to continue with the tradition of the wine making. It is fine if producers want the long tradition, the long cultural heritage that they carry on their shoulders to continue. And there will be a market for those as well. Both in Europe and, certainly, outside Europe because the reputation of European wine and wine production is strong and I have recently been in India and they are really interested in European wines.

It is not a question of spoiling the long tradition of European wine making, the nice labels that you see with all the information on the geographical indications but it is also a question of making it possible for our wine producers to regain some of the markets that they have lost.