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French vintners awash in too much wine

Among the idyllic vineyards of France there is a nightmare becoming reality – not that the weather might produce a poor vintage, but because there is wine. By NBC News correspondent  Charles Sabine
/ Source: NBC News

There’s a glut in Europe -- a wine glut. There’s just too much of it. So, the Europeans find themselves gulping instead of sipping.

The French and their beloved wines. Culled from the fruit of the rich Gallic soil for generations, a love affair shared the world over. But among the idyllic vineyards of France there is a nightmare becoming reality – not that the weather might produce a poor vintage, but because there is too much wine.

For decades the European Union has encouraged the French to plant more vineyards by giving them subsidies. Now it’s telling vintners to tear them up.

The problem facing European wine producers is that aggressive marketing by some new world producers like Australia, as well as improved production techniques in others like North America, have seen their sales increase by as much as 20 times. In the same period, exports from France have gone down 15 percent, but it still produces the same amount of wine. Add to that a French per capita drop in consumption and you end up with a surplus wine lake – equivalent to more than a billion bottles. In the last year the European Union has spent $500 million on ‘crisis distillation,’ turning lovingly created vintages into ethanol and surgical spirit.

“You had a comic economic insanity which was you were subsidizing an agricultural crop which was then being turned into something else which, when you think about it is just madness. So something had to happen,” said Wine writer Malcolm Gluck.

And that, says the European Commissioner, is to tear up 12 percent of France’s treasured vines. French wine growers have already been protesting threats to a way of life, which employs 1.5 million of their countrymen. Many French believe the vignerons, as the owners are called, will not easily part with vineyards that have been nurtured for centuries.

“I can really understand a vigneron who has been passed on a vineyard by his family, that is going to be very reluctant to take that offer because it is so emotional. He is so close to it,” said Raymond Blanc of Le Manour Aux Quatre Saisons.

Another proposal: simpler labeling and marketing French wine as one brand, following the example of the new world.

“It’s a big, big problem because we don’t know how to market ourselves globally, whereas America can do so brilliantly well,” said Gluck.

Thirty years ago the French would never have believed the vineyards of the U.S., Chile or New Zealand could have threatened them. Now, they are learning that only root and branch reform of their own wine industry will enable it to survive.