BRUSSELS, Belgium – European winemakers are losing customers at French sidewalk cafes and Italian dinner tables, and the EU's top farm official has a drop of advice: Stop confusing wine drinkers.
European wines have a dizzying number of classifications, with many designated by whether the grape is grown on the left or right bank of a river, or to the east or west of a particular estate.
But wine drinkers in Europe are turning up their noses at Pauillacs and Pomerols in favor of American, South African and Australian wines with simple, easy-to-understand labels. Experts predict that if current trends persist, Europe will soon become a net importer of wine.
"The consumer decides what is taken down the shelves in the supermarkets. The consumer wants simple, clear labeling," EU Farm Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel said after meeting with farm ministers from the 25 EU member nations to discuss reforming Europe's wine sector.
"When you look at the success of the new-world wines, some of them specifically use the labeling 'Chardonnay,' 'Sauvignon,' and people don't ask for anything, but 'let me get a glass or a bottle of Sauvignon," she said.
"We need to head in the same direction," she said.
There's strong opposition in Europe to changing the sometimes centuries-old rules and traditions governing wine appellations, with names and quality designations depending on grape blends and the area, village or hillside the grapes are cultivated.
But European drinkers are flocking to wines from abroad.
Australia has boosted its exports into the EU from 1.85 million hectoliters in 2000 to 3 million last year. The U.S. more than doubled its exports from 995,000 hectoliters to 2.16 million over the same period, and South African wines shot from 1.11 million hectoliters to 2.26 million hectoliters, according to the European Commission.
Over a 15-year period U.S. exports to Europe have risen fourfold, while those from Chile and Australia have risen 19 times, Fischer Boel has said. Even though EU exports rose 20 percent over the same period, sales of European wine in the U.S. are beginning to slip.
Sales to its top market, the United States, sank from 3.95 million hectoliters in 2004 to 3.86 million hectoliters last year.
Fischer Boel urged the farm ministers to accept reform. "Those in the sector that want to use the same tools as our successful competitors from outside the EU should be allowed to do so."
EU nations have agreed that a profound reform of the continent's wine industry is needed, but still bicker on ways to achieve it.
There is still fundamental disagreement between sunny southern member states and colder northern ones on whether adding sugar to a wine should be allowed. Many northern nations, because of a lack of sun, use extra sugar to produce high-quality wines.
"We need to improve competitively and need to get out of a situation that wine from third countries gets a better foothold in European markets," said Finland's Agriculture Minister Juha Korkeaoja, who chaired the meeting in Luxembourg.
The EU is already subsidizing the restructuring of the sector at a rate of some $565 million a year.
Wine reform will be taken up again by the European Parliament before EU member states look to reach a full agreement next year.