Wednesday, November 29, 2006

How Bout Some Cheese With That Whine

The Scotsman - MORE than eight million litres of this season's production of Beaujolais wine is being turned into near-pure alcohol for use in disinfectants, cleaning products or fuel additives, as French vineyards face up to a massive overproduction crisis.

A chronic wine glut, falling domestic consumption and fierce overseas competition have converged to create a wine crisis on an unprecedented scale. With "lakes" of unsold wine threatening to undermine prices, the European Union has resorted to paying vintners to destroy some of their stock each year, distilling billions of bottles of perfectly drinkable wine into pure alcohol.

Sceptics say the measure, which cost EU taxpayers 150 million (£100 million) last year alone, is merely a quick fix that does not get to the root of the problem - which is that Europe simply produces too much wine for too few consumers.

A new plan aims to fix at least the production side by downsizing Europe's wine industry by ripping out huge swaths of vineyards. Some 100,000 acres of vines, more than 10 per cent of Europe's total, could be lost over the next five years across Spain, France and Italy.

But as more wine is distilled each year - reaching 2.8 billion litres in 2005 - even the most virulent opponents of the EU plan acknowledge that something has got to give. "For years, we shrugged the crisis off as a temporary downturn," said Gilles de Longevialle, who heads a group representing the vintners of Beaujolais. "But we're beginning to see it's here to stay."

Until last year, so-called "crisis distillations" were considered only for the cheapest table wines. Now, quality wines are also boiled away in large quantities.

So for the second autumn in a row, Philippe Terrollion, director of the Beaujolais Distillery in central-eastern France, sent out a fleet of lorries to pick up an expected 8.5 million litres of unbottled, unsold Beaujolais. That's enough to fill about 125 swimming pools.

"For vintners, the decision to distil is a hard one," Mr Terrollion said. "But in the end, they have to do it to get rid of the old stuff to make room for the new."

With funds from the EU and local authorities, Mr Terrollion paid vintners the EU-fixed price of about 35 cents (24p) per litre - about one-fifth of the average price paid by wholesalers for bottled wine sold for consumption.

The problem is, the wine just doesn't sell. European vintages are languishing on the shelf as consumers around the globe reach for bottles from New World producers in the likes of Chile, Australia and South Africa. Louis-Fabrice Latour, who heads the Louis Latour label in Burgundy, admitted a feeling of superiority had made them slow to react. "In France, we used to think we were the biggest and best and no-one could touch us," he said.

The wine-makers warn against tearing out vineyards, saying that would effectively tie their hands and prevent them from adapting to a changing world market. They point to India and China - where an emerging middle-class is beginning to acquire taste for wine. "When the Chinese really get into wine, demand for our product is going to explode to the point where if we cut back today, we might not be able to fill it," Mr de Longevialle said.

But with distilleries working overtime, nearly everyone admits the status quo is not viable. "It's clear we can't go on like this," Mr Terrollion said. "But we can't just snuff out wine-making, especially in a region like ours. Wine runs in our veins."