In vino veritas

Changes to EU rules may put many British winemakers out of business, The Observer reported yesterday. Britain being an inhospitable country in which to ripen grapes to their full sugary concentration, British winemakers often add sucrose or grape must to their fermenting grape-juice, to ensure a sufficient alcohol content. The EU intends to ban the use of sucrose, and stop subsidies on grape must. The EU will also continue its ban on planting more vines, thus preventing the recently British wine production from being expanded. Should we feel sorry for the British producers?

This is a case of two wrongs and a right. Unless there are health implications from the use of sucrose, it is none of (European or British) government's business whether winemakers use it in their product. Nor is it their business whether people choose to plant vines. On the other hand, there is no conceivable reason why a product should be subsidised, when it is used in the production of a good that is in substantial over-supply, so the EU are right to end subsidies of grape must.

The temptation is to ask why people are producing wine in England at all, given that there is more than enough being produced in parts of Europe where conditions are more conducive and traditions more longstanding. But that is like suggesting that the Swiss should not produce watches when the Japanese are producing more than enough for all of us. If people are prepared to pay the price for a Swiss watch, that is their business. It is likely to be the exclusivity that attracts purchasers. If that is why people want English wine, producers should not be prevented from producing however much they judge the market can stand, and in whatever way they see fit.

On the other hand, it would be ridiculous to suggest that Swiss watchmakers should be subsidised because their costs are higher than the competition, or because the market is swamped with cheap competition. And it would not be much more sensible to support them to mass-produce their product to try to undercut the cheap, foreign competition. If they can produce a cheap, competitive product without support (e.g. Swatch), then all well and good, but that should not be achieved through subsidy. So with English wine. Some of it is excellent and should be able to sustain a sufficient price to survive without subsidy. But there is no inherent merit in English wine, so there should be no support either to keep uneconomic vineyards running, or to plant new ones.

Ultimately, the market will tell. Producing wine in England does seem to ignore the comparative advantages of our mediterranean neighbours. But if people want it, sucrose- or grape-must-enhanced or not, they should not be prevented from having it in order to protect European producers who are so ill-skilled that they cannot even out-perform producers struggling under English conditions.