Skip to comments.Facing wine glut, Europe's vintners distil wine into industrial alcohol
Posted on 11/30/2006 8:08:16 PM PST by quantim
BELLEVILLE-SUR-SAONE, France (AP) - At some of France's most celebrated vineyards, vintage wine is being transformed into alcohol for disinfectants or gasoline additives - a high-tech process winemakers hope will help them stay afloat.
Chronic overproduction, dipping domestic consumption and fierce overseas competition have created a European wine crisis of 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.
The steaming grape juice that's left is hauled back to the vineyards, where it will be used to fertilize next year's vintage.
Skeptics say the measure, which cost EU taxpayers $190 million last year, is a quick fix that does not get at the root of the problem - Europe simply produces too much wine for too few consumers.
A contested new EU plan aims to downsize Europe's wine industry, shifting from distillation to ripping out huge swaths of vineyards - some 40,470 hectares of vines, or more than 10 per cent of Europe's total, over the next five years.
Across Spain, France and Italy, Europe's vintners are putting up a united front against the proposal. But as more wine is distilled each year - reaching 2.8 billion litres in 2005 - even the most virulent opponents acknowledge something has to be done.
"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 only for the cheapest table wines. Now, however, 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 trucks to pick up enough unbottled, unsold Beaujoulais wine to fill about 125 swimming pools.
"For vintners, the decision to distil is a hard one," said Terrollion. "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, Terrollion paid vintners the EU-fixed price of about $1.66 for every four litres - about one-fifth of the average price paid by wholesalers for bottled wine sold for consumption.
While European vintages languish on the shelf, consumers around the world are reaching for bottles from so-called New World producers in Chile, the U.S., South Africa and elsewhere.
New World imports now account for 70 per cent of wine sales in Ireland, for example, and Australia recently overtook France as Britain's main supplier.
"In France, we used to think we were the biggest and the best and no one could touch us," said Louis-Fabrice Latour, who heads the prestigious Louis Latour label in the Burgundy region. The feelings of superiority blinded vintners to the threat from foreign rivals, he said.
But overseas competition is not the only reason behind Europe's wine troubles. Changing continental drinking habits are also to blame. Wine consumption is down throughout the continent, with wine-drinking champions Italy and France leading the decline.
In the town of Beaune, in Burgundy, Jean-Pierre Charriot sat in a bar nursing an after-work drink. But instead of a chilled Chardonnay or robust Pinot Noir, both regional specialties, he was having a beer.
Charriot makes his living in the wine industry. A tour guide, he takes foreign tourists on visits to local vineyards and wineries.
Although wine pays the bills, Charriot said he doesn't drink much of the stuff.
"I drink beer pretty much every day, but wine is for special occasions," he said, adding that wine's high alcohol content makes it a tricky choice in today's drunk-driving-conscious France. "With wine, you can't drive home after a couple of drinks after work."
Many French vintners blame tougher laws aimed at curbing drinking and driving for the country's precipitous decline in wine consumption. In 1960, the average Frenchman drank 3.1 bottles of wine per week. Today, the average intake is 1.4 bottles per week and falling, according to Michel Baldassini, who heads the main Burgundy wine growers' association.
Once a French dietary staple as fundamental as bread or cheese, wine is increasingly regarded as a luxury product, Baldassini said. "The French are drinking less, but better."
The change is hurting middle-market regions like Beaujolais while favouring vineyards in places like Champagne, Bordeaux and Burgundy - the prestigious regions on which Europe is betting its winemaking future.
The EU's wine overhaul still needs approval from member governments and the European Parliament, and EU officials hope to have the new rules in place for the 2008 growing season.
The winemakers warn against tearing out vineyards, pointing to India and China, where an emerging middle class is beginning to acquire a 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," de Longevialle said.
Still, nearly everyone admits the status quo is not viable.
"It's clear we can't go on like this," said distillery director Terrollion. "But we can't just snuff out winemaking either - especially in a region like ours, where wine runs in our veins."
Bet they got that idea from the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture handout programs.
Wine? The French are making wine now? Who knew?
Oenology news ping.
yes, but it's not very good , and over priced....they'll learn, then again, perhaps not..
I love how they ignore the effect of the American boycott.
HA HA HA HA!!
How about lowering your prices? It's called supply and demand, learn about it.
[. . .A contested new EU plan aims to downsize Europe's wine industry, shifting from distillation to ripping out huge swaths of vineyards - some 40,470 hectares of vines, or more than 10 per cent of Europe's total, over the next five years.]
Also know as "Central Planning" in the old Soviet Union.
I thought they called that french cognac
Muslims don't need no stinking wine. So goes the french culture. If there is such a thing.
They've bottomed out.
As far as American boycotts on French wine go it may have helped keep some prices from rising, but the quality French wines have just shifted to other international (particularly Asian) markets.
Say what you will about the French...but they sure make good wine.
Yes. To be serious for a moment, this isn't an uncommon phenomenon during big harvest years - lots of nice, fat, water-laden grapes...that make lousy wine. The Aussies went through a bit of this last year. It happens.
Now, on to bash-the-French night! You know why the Muzzies are burning the cars in Paris? In case the German army wants to march in at night...
" they ignore the effect of the American boycott."
" Australia recently overtook France as Britain's main supplier."
" Muslims don't need no stinking wine. So goes the french culture..."
In Spain, I recall when wine was automatically served with your meal, like ice water here. It was included in the price of a complete meal and it was good, not great but very drinkable.
I don't understand this. You can distill wine into brandy, or something that's becoming more popular, into vodka.
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