A proposal by Brussels to allow pest-resistant American grapes in wine production is dividing Europe along a north-south faultline — with the Continent’s southern wine powerhouses kicking up resistance.
The grape species Vitis labrusca, which is native to North America, lies at the heart of the fight. Commissioner for Agriculture Phil Hogan suggested lifting an EU-wide ban on these varieties, as part of his farm policy reform plans last summer, in order to help vintners adapt to changing climate and to help the environment.
Banned EU-wide since 1979, Vitis labrusca strains are naturally resistant to common pests such as Phylloxera, a type of sap-sucking aphid. They’re also cold resistant, meaning they can easily take root in more northerly climates. Brussels’ idea is that lifting the ban would empower vintners to choose grapes that don’t require intensive pesticide-spraying. Spraying fewer chemicals would also save farmers money, the thinking goes.
Twelve countries — including Europe’s leading producers such as France and Italy — are dead set against Hogan’s’ idea, however. They cite the need to protect the reputation for quality that European wines have built up among consumers worldwide. Many also think the smell of the American wines is off-putting.
“Labrusca varieties are normally associated with foxy aromas,” said Ignacio Sánchez Recarte, the secretary-general of Brussels’ wine lobby CEEV, using an industry term to describe the earthy musk of these wines.
Some ministers cautioned also against tinkering with a winemaking tradition that stretches back to antiquity.
“These are not the reference aromas that are part of our canon of quality,” he said, adding that crossing European strains of wine could achieve similar environmental benefits.
Italian State Secretary for Food and Agriculture Franco Manzato took a similar line at a meeting of agriculture ministers in Brussels on Monday. “There’s a high presence of methanol … This gives rise to a certain aroma. This would hinder the marketing of these products,” he said.
Some ministers cautioned also against tinkering with a winemaking tradition that stretches back to antiquity. Greek Agricultural Development Minister Stavros Arachovitis, for example, opposed the idea and said the quality of European wines is “based on a history of thousands of years.”
To others, however, there’s a hard commercial incentive behind such opposition.
“There is a kind of feeling that these varieties would allow wine production to move northward, or toward new markets,” said Gonçalo Macedo, an agriculture policy coordinator at Arche Noah, an Austria-based association that promotes crop diversity. “We think this is much better for the environment,” he added.
“The commercial strategies of the countries doesn’t include using these varieties: That’s their right,” Macedo said, adding that this is nonetheless no reason to maintain a ban.
Only ministers from northern countries — Finland, Denmark and Luxembourg — stuck up for the idea. Germany also appeared more positive than other countries about the proposal, which has a long way to go before any final decision is reached.
“We prefer sticking to the status quo, but we’re not going to die in a ditch on that,” said German Agriculture Minister Julia Klöckner. “There are very positive qualities here.”
It will be some time before French vintners agree to a dilution of their precious French vines.