Nik Darlington 11.53am
The Greek philosopher Diogenes once said, “what I like to drink most is wine that belongs to others”.
That was, in a sense, what we inhabitants of the British Isles were forced to do for hundreds of years.
Whatever might be said about the Romans and their vines along Hadrian’s Wall, for most of history if you wanted to drink wine on these shores then you had to import it and you had to pay a pretty price for it.
Things have changed. The English (and Welsh) domestic wine industry is in very good and ever-improving health, thanks to increasing interest, investment and climate change (yes, it has its silver lining). There are more than four hundred vineyards turning out red, white and sparkling wines, which though admittedly of varying quality, have in recent years hit dizzy heights.
And yesterday the Times (£) reported on what is expected to be a ‘vintage year’ for English wine, with the Diamond Jubilee and the London Olympics earmarked as opportunities to showcase the nation’s best. Indeed, the Olympics cycling road race is due to pass close to England’s largest single vineyard, Denbies, in the Surrey Hills.
But there was another wine-related story in yesterday’s Times (£) that is worth dwelling on.
The EU has plans to abolish vine plantation regulations, which stipulate where and how much wine can be cultivated throughout Europe, so as to limit production, control quality, and maintain prices. However, a number of leading wine-producers, including France, are opposed to any relaxation of the regulations.
Supporters of the reform say it will make Europe’s wine industry more competitive and better able to meet the challenge from New World producers. They accuse France, Spain and Italy and other wine nations of trying to preserve their dominance by preventing the spread of vineyards to other regions and countries.
In 2007, the EU voted to scrap vine plantation rights, which allowed new vineyards and the extension of existing ones. Although the French Government initially backed the reforms, it has since backtracked, in the face of rural fury. President Sarkozy has vowed to fight the move.
Dominique Janin, deputy general secretary of the Assembly of European Wine Growing Regions, told The Times that liberalisation would leave vineyards at the mercy of “hedge funds and multinationals”.
“They are going to plant hundreds or thousands of hectares of vines and we will move towards industrial production,” said Mr Janin. “The consequences will be quite serious. Europe will become like Australia. When you have a plant that lasts 70 years you need rules and harmonious management.”
First of all, it is a bit of a harsh judgement on the New World producers such as Australia. That country’s recent problems, for instance, have more to do with natural disaster (drought) than industrial production. And while the New World produces some frightful cheap plonk, many of its vineyards are have been matching the old masters of Europe for some years now.
But the main point is that the likes of the French are both right and wrong. They are wrong because one of the reasons why the New World is fast catching up with the old is because its vineyards are freer to experiment with grape varieties and production methods, and to expand into new and exciting terroirs.
They are, however, right in that irrespective of how much the New World ‘catches up’ (relatively or absolutely), the unique selling point of the Old World is its history, traditions and styles. They must be protected.
The proper solution would be for the EU to forge ahead with abolishing continental regulations, so allowing certain producers to follow their own path, but to allow individual member states to maintain domestic controls. This type of flexible thinking should not run contrary to any EU anti-competition laws, because the English wine industry is already outside the existing controls.
English winemakers are proving adept at applying the best of the old - such as the classic methods of Champagne to produce top drawer sparkling wine - and at the same time pushing the boundaries, even beginning production of ‘English Malbec’ from imported Argentine grapes (which the EU is absurdly prohibiting).
Much as it is doing so in the glass, English wine could be ahead of the pack in other ways too. Europe, take note.
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