French Vintners Find E.U. Concoction Unpalatable

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 4, 2009

TARADEAU, France -- To the buttoned-down European Union bureaucrats in Brussels, the idea was simple: squeeze costs, conquer new markets, maximize profits. But to the vintners of Taradeau, a sun-splashed Provencal village 800 miles to the south -- and a world away, mentally -- it was an attack on their Mediterranean heritage, a crack in French civilization, a fraud against wine lovers everywhere.

Never, they cried, can you mix a bucket of red wine into a barrel of white and call it rosé. Only the age-old process in which grape skins macerate in the juice for a finely calculated moment before fermentation, they protested, can produce the seductive color, fruity aromas and delicate structure of a true rosé. Mixing red and white, they sniffed, may make something pink to drink, but it is not rosé wine.

The trouble began in January when the European Union's agriculture commission decided, as part of a broad revamping of regulations on the wine industry, that starting Aug. 1 European producers can mix red wine with white and label it "rosé." To add insult to injury, vintners in Provence complained, France's representatives voted with the majority to make the abomination possible.

"They were had," charged Marc Rolley, director of the Cotes de Provence Wine Union in Les Arcs sur Argens, 15 miles inland from Saint-Tropez on the Mediterranean Sea.

Undeterred by the outcry here, the E.U. agriculture commission had been due to finalize its decision last week. But French Agriculture Minister Michel Barnier obtained a postponement until June 19. Between now and then, rosé producers said, the French government will attempt to line up enough support among the 27 E.U. governments to cancel the rule change.

Johan Reyniers, a spokesman for the commission in Brussels, said E.U. officials meant well and had their reasons: They were seeking to arm European vintners for competition in emerging markets such as China, where producers from Australia and South Africa, for example, do not hesitate to mix red wine with white and undersell European rosé by several dollars a bottle. Anyway, he added, relaxing Europe's rosé rules was only "one little thing" in a vast program to unshackle the wine industry from outdated regulations.

The clashing perspectives -- this "one little thing" is a way of life in the hills of Provence -- have once again pitted France's tradition of good living and great gastronomy against the seemingly unstoppable march of economic imperatives. Across the country, from wine cellars to cheese vats, from sausagemakers to bakers, artisans are confronted by 21st-century demands for efficiency, cost-cutting and homogenization.

Consumers' shopping carts may be fuller and supermarket chains' profit ledgers may be blacker as a result, but something is being lost in the process, traditional producers say.

Looking across the sloping hillsides lined with grapevines that surround Chateau de Saint Martin here, it is easy to understand their point. Ever since the Count of Rohan Chabot bought the beautiful vineyards from a group of monks in the 17th century as a dowry for his daughter, the same family has been producing a sunny line of red, white and rosé wines with a proud heritage.

When Chateau de Saint Martin marketers decided to call a premium old-vine rosé "Comtesse de Saint Martin," for instance, they had only to go to family portraits hanging in the chateau to make a historically accurate label. Strikingly, the enterprise has been in the hands of several such women through the years, the current owner and operator being Adeline de Barry.

To her, the new rule was a "stupid" decision, taken to allow merchants to dump large quantities of white wine, particularly from Spain, that have backed up in storage since rosé overtook white in recent years as the second most popular wine, after red, in France; as of last year, nearly a quarter of all the wine consumed in France was rosé. If nothing can be done to reverse the decision, she said in an e-mail, then at least some clear term must be devised to distinguish real rosé from mixes.

And, she added, the term must be "chosen not by incapable politicians but by international marketers to avoid words that have no sense except in bureaucrats' offices and outside our borders."

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