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    De juiste wijn bij het juiste gerecht
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    Good Food, Fine Wine: A Practical Guide to Finding the Perfect Match


The European Planting Rights Debate: Freedom at last? 

The Europeans are missing quite a few legislative tricks when it comes to plantation laws. They are fighting all of the wrong fights, becoming their own worst enemy. Grape growers all over Europe are opposing a move by the European Parliament to relax planting limits in 2016. Currently there is a protective tool in place that limits vine plantings and it is due to expire then. This is a good thing. Right? But those who have vineyards in protected appellations, do not want to see them expanded. They want to “protect” their product and feel that ending planting restrictions would “further weaken a sector that is already battling cheap imports, overproduction and declining demand.” Translation: “But if there are more wines produced in my village, I will not be able to continue charging my exorbitant prices.” This is incredibly short-sighted.

After a three-year battle, the European Commission renounced their decision to get rid of planting rights regulations and retain them until 2024, but  French wine producers are calling for the European system of planting rights to be preserved until 2030. Proponents of the plan point out that wine is the only sector in European agriculture that is subject to planting restrictions, and that the European wine regions are the only restricted ones in the world. Countries within the EU will be allowed to increase their vineyard planting by up to 1% each year until 2030, when the system will be reviewed once more. Wahoo. The new scheme is so mired in legislative red-tape, that frankly, it is ineffectual. It is obsessed with controlling production limits (i.e. prices / market control) – which it does not even achieve, and ignores the need to plant new varieties for either climate change adaptation, or simply, for the pure joy of experimentation, progress or creative novelty. Think European: Change is bad!!!

How does one tell them that they are risking all to protect a commodity that will no longer exist in 2030, that by hanging onto these pseudo-protectionist policies, they are actually placing themselves in a far more vulnerable position. And who are the wine producers pushing for stagnation? When I am out in the field, the producers I meet want freedom to grow, change and adapt. Do the two sides never convene? Apparently the act was pushed through by Member States that are non-producing wine countries who wanted wine to be treated as any other agricultural crop.

But still, it is inconceivable that the European wine producers would try to restrict their flexibility when at the same time, they are part of the international wine trade – the first industry sectors worldwide to agree to a consistent system to calculate carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions, as devised by the International Organisation of Vine and WINE (OIV). Called the “Greenhouse Gas Accounting Protocol”, the system is set up to help companies assess the greenhouse gas emissions associated with their activities and also to offer guidance on the emissions associated with the vine and wine products. The UK’s Wine and Spirit Trade Association backs it So, whilst they are clearly up-to-speed on climate change (which is indeed what I am getting from my travels in the vineyards), some still have not connected the dots between climate change and the need for flexible replanting rights. Are they placing too much faith in the resilience of the vitis vinifera? True, she is a feisty beast who has been adapting for hundreds of years to changing climates, and the hottest years in the classic European fine wine regions have often produced great vintages. They also have great faith in their own vineyard practices, experience and savoir-faire, and rightly so. As Muriel Barthes, the technical director at the CIVB (Conseil interprofessional des vins de Bordeaux) points out: “in the past 30 years we have evidenced a marked rise in temperatures, but in the scale of 100 years, we know nothing, except for the know projection models.” Perhaps their plan is to wait it out, hoping that the projections are not true and that another mini-cycle of cooling will hit and save their vineyards for another few generations?

If it is commonly accepted that “dans cinquante ans, le Bordelais et d'autres régions viticoles auront des encépagements et des porte-greffes très différents” (in 50 years, Bordeaux and other regions will have very different root-stocks and grape varieties), then how do they suppose that they will get there if they fight any liberalised planting schemes? Serge Delrot, the Director and a professor of the l’ISVV, continues to affirm that “if the droughts continue, it will be necessary to plant new, late-ripening grape varieties instead of those known to us today. » He is far from alone; a fellow professor at Enita insists that there will be a time when wines have a different taste and typicity. And Gregory Jones asks “If that ground is the best in the world for Pinot Noir, will it be the best for something else? If Burgundy warms to the point where Pinot Noir and Chablis are not longer the best grapes for that region, will people buy a new product? … At some point a grower in a region that has become too warm has to make a decision. It’s like if you’re selling widgets, and widgets don’t sell anymore, what do you do? You have to come up with widgets 2.0.”

The biggest problem with replanting, and one that some may find insurmountable, is that it is best for those regions that are starting new plantings or have the space for new plantings. If you are already established, if every parcel is planted, the lifecycle of the vine makes this a very difficult process. Once you plant a plant, it is in the ground for 50 years. And it takes at least 10 years to figure out it if you got it right – and by that time, the climate conditions for which you planted it, will most likely have changed again.

The Germans are all up-in-arms. Like everyone else, they are petrified of the possibility of over-production if planting laws are loosened or lifted. Steffen Schindler, marketing director for the German Wine Institute, said: “At last we are in a situation with no over-production but this would threaten that position.”  He also expressed concern that the decision could undermine Germany’s recent success in raising its prices. With total exports in 2012 worth €321 million, the country’s average price rose by 8.4% to reach €2.46 per litre. Again, they are thinking too short-term. They have hindered their own success in the global marketplace, not protected it.

In Spain, recent changes in appellation laws in Rioja has meant that we now have a  “new” white Rioja made with newly approved grape varieties (as opposed to Viura). So, it is finally happening. In 2007, the Rioja Regulatory Council approved six new white varietals: the local varieties of tempranillo blanco,maturana blanca and turruntés, and the international chardonnay and sauvignon blanc and Rueda’s verdejo.  The Council agreed that while the local whites could stand alone, the international varietals could be no more than 49% of a white blend, with 51% reserved for local varieties. There has been a push to revive and revere the lost indigenous varieties of Rioja, especially the reds, like maturana tinta. Again reviving the argument that indigenous is best: the maturana tinta, with its late budburst, early ripening, high acidity and medium alcohol content, is far better suited to the warming climate.


But again, the push for these changes may not be for the reasons you might think. The main reason is Rioja’s desire to produce more individual and terroir-driven wines and to move away from the international obsession with the Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Winemakers in Rioja do not see the point in trying to compete with the rest of the world to make the same wine, when they have such individual and unique varieties at their feet. This is to be applauded. Apparently, Rioja winemakers have also been frustrated with the mediocre results of the Viura for years, partly because Rioja whites are made the same way as their reds – oaked and heavy. They are also frustrated that whites from other Spanish regions, Rías Baixas and Rueda are having a greater commercial success than theirs. But, having spoken to Viura producers, they all told me that the heat means that the Viura wines are becoming increasingly insipid, especially in Rioja Baja, the southern-most and warmest of the La Rioja sub-regions, where the climate is more Mediterranean than Continental and the red wines can reach 18% alcohol.

Although, this is not the reason being given for the stylistic shift. Again, several producers told me that people are either still not connecting the dots between rising temperatures and their increasingly boring wines, or, if they have, it is not a subject they wish to highlight, for fear of alarming the consumer and upsetting the market. There is also the same fear that the relaxed laws will be exploited by some producers who intend to make more international wines and in great quantities. The new planting laws can be used to pursue two different market strategies/goals. But this has always been the case, everywhere in the world (and in all industries). Those who wish to produce mass-market wines will never be restrained by legislative tools; they will always find a way around them. Whilst those whose intention is to produce indigenous, traditional wines must not have their efforts confined nor stunted by these same tools.

Not surprisingly, England is one of the few nations that supports the EU’s “liberal” planting move. “We should have the freedom to plant where we want," says Julia Trustram-Eve, of English Wine Producers. "Planting restrictions have held Europe back, allowing some areas to continue to produce poor-quality wine and falsely inflate the value of land." Perhaps the change is simply too frightening to face. Even the most forward-thinking of producers have moments of reserve. Lamberto Frescobaldi of Tuscany was quoted as saying that “old traditions should not be allowed to hinder winemakers from adapting to climate change – even if it means permitting new grapes in their wines.” But he doubts that Tuscans will let go of their Sangiovese very easily, if at all.

The restriction in surface area to a rise of  1 % each year (if you are in a certain area, if you promise to grub up an equivalent amount of vines first, if you only plant varieties that were already authorized, if you belong to a Member State that applied before 2007, or if you name your first born either Adelbert or Anique and promise to serve them frites at every meal), is a frantic and futile attempt to avoid over-production. Smart – limit production some more when your yields have already been decreased between 20-40% due to recent harrowingly disastrous harvests. An EU representative complained that “the wines of Bordeaux and Cognac endured a terrible crisis due to a large increase in the number of vineyards during the 2000s.” He further argues that sales of Australian wines were booming in the 1990s and became “the international model of success in the winemaking world, and particularly in exports.”  The positive reaction to this export success led to a slew of new vineyards in the absence of any laws limiting quantities. Australia, he says, now faces “uprooting, bankruptcy, non-harvesting, sequestration, a rapid drop in land values, the purchase of assets by foreign investors.” Yes, but not due entirely to over-production, but to the costs over-heads needed to force wine production in a hostile environment and the over-salination of the soils. Even if they had stemmed their production, these problems would not have gone away.

If I were a European wine producer, I would be furious and start looking for loop-holes. In the EU’s working document of April 2012, “Rule 1” under planting rights granted from a Reserve, states that “the location, the varieties and the cultivation techniques used guarantee that the subsequent production is adapted to market demand.” It explains that these qualitative criteria are not determined which gives a Member State room for interpretation on a regional level. These criteria also allow “taking into account territorial considerations. For example, it may be decided that no planting rights are granted to certain regions of a Member State, to certain types of soil-climate conditions or for the establishment of vineyards which so not respect certain technical specifications, as long as this is justified with - lack of adaptation to market demand”. So, if my Meursault was so flabby and sweet that it no longer fit the classic model of “Meursault” and I could not sell it as such, does that not mean that my product no longer is able to adapt to “market demand”? And doesn’t that mean that I should be able to grow a grape in my “soil-climate conditions” that would adapt to market demand? Perhaps this how they are secretly hoping that these instruments will be applied. They like a good haggle and a bit of jumping through hoops. And what about the good old “force majeure” card? I’d petition the INAO for a demande d’autorisation de plantation de vignes based on a few “intempéries graves” (severe weather conditions). Or, use the rule where you are allowed “experimental” plantings as certain Bordeaux châteaux are doing, such as Château Cheval-Blanc or Larose-Trintodon in the Médoc.




Another fight that seems to be being waged for the wrong reasons is the one waging in Sancerre. When the INAO (l’Institut national de l’origine et de la qualité) announced that it was closing its office in Sancerre and centralizing it in Tours, 210 kilometers away, the producers, represented as the Union Viticole Sancerroise (UVS) angered at the fact that they would still be paying their fees to the INAO, but receiving a reduced service. They are now considering leaving the INAO and creating a “Sancerre” trademark and are seeking legal advice. Critics of the move take a conservative stance and suggest that such a move would destabilize the entire appellation system. But again, so what? It is being destabilized as we speak, anyway.

I think that the producers should take back their brand and do with it what they like. They all seem to be so protective and over-worried about production levels, but in the grand scheme of things, Sancerre is miniscule and its sheer physical restrictions should serve as sufficient protection. Leaving the INAO is technically possible and if done properly, would not endanger the cachet of its AOC value. It does not need to be called “AOC”, it needs to be called “Sancerre” and it needs to be good. Whether that mean it is “Sauvignon blanc” from Sancerre or one day, perhaps a warmer-climate varietal such as “Viognier” from Sancerre. The market forces that created Sancerre, will sustain Sancerre. Further, there is so much diluted, flabby and overly-worked Sancerres being produced anyway. The use of heavily-flavored selected yeasts is so marked: Sancerre à la fraiseà l’ananas or à la banane, anyone?  So while they are all frightened of leaving the false safely umbrella of the INAO, and of loosening their grip on their monopoly of mediocrity, they are risking giving up a chance at future freedom.

Another point: the planting restrictions only apply to those who wish to comply to the system of controlled designation of origin (AOC). So, in theory, you could boycott the planting rules but lose your appellation and become a vin de table. But then you risk not selling your wines at the same price anymore. Unless, everyone followed suite and looked to Italy’s Super Tuscans for inspiration. They broke away from the sloppy and illogical varietal Chianti laws and created their own version, treated it like a brand, and were able to charge three times more than the regulated appellation wines.

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