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Wine imports may swamp Europe, EU commissioner warns

Australian and Chilean wine could swamp Europe if no solution is found to the crisis in European winemaking, agriculture commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel warned Tuesday.

In an interview with Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa, she said reforms proposed by the European Union were vital. Wine-making nations are deeply split about the changes. The EU produces more wine than it can sell. The surplus, or "wine lake," is converted into surgical spirit and industrial alcohol. "If we don't reform, we'll lose the market to imports," Fischer Boel warned in Mainz, Germany, where farm ministers were wrapping up a three-day informal meeting Tuesday including visits to prestigious Rhine valley vineyards. The wine industry has to concentrate on the future, she said. "For me, quality is the most important issue," she added, confirming that the ministers will probably not settle the details of reforms before Germany's presidency ends June 30.

The EU Commission wants to offer wine-growers cash incentives to voluntarily take land out of grape production. After cries of protest, she this week cut the proposed scheme from 400,000 hectares to 200,000 hectares. She is to unveil a new proposal July 4. The funds saved by reducing the scale of rip-outs would go into other tactics. Germany's minister, Horst Seehofer, who chaired the meeting, is among the opponents of rip-outs. Germany is defensive about its centuries-old vineyards, situated at the northernmost limit of European winegrowing. Some German grapes need added sugar to make acceptable wine, whereas Mediterranean grapes come fully sun-ripened. Fischer Boel said she expected the negotiations to be complex. "There are huge differences between the EU nations on wine issues," she said, explaining her latest compromise proposals. "It was vital that I evolved a balance," she said. "Everyone is going to have to work on this if we are to find a solution."

The EU collectively is the world's biggest wine producer, but the industry is hampered by the mass of low-quality wine which cannot be sold at cost. In one of the much criticized features of EU common agricultural policy, storing and distilling the surplus into industrial alcohol costs €500 million ($650 million) annually. (