Austrian winemakers defy EU law

A traditional house used by Uhudler winemakers in Burgenland. [Christoph Sammer/Flickr]

The EU’s zeal for regulation can lead it into some strange conflicts. Recently it has found itself in dispute with Austrian viticulturists over a regional brand of wine. EURACTIV Germany reports.

Uhudler wine comes from the Burgenland region of eastern Austria and dates back to the 19th century, when a pest epidemic wiped out much of the European wine industry. Austrian winemakers imported pest-resistant vines from North America, instead of making copious use of pesticides, and grafted their varieties onto the new stems. This created a wine that was radically different in taste to what had been seen in Europe before.

In the mid-20th century, when it became clear that this new process of grafting was a viable solution to the European wine industry’s plight, North American vines were banned in many countries across the continent, as winemakers sought to reestablish their own European crop.

Currently, Uhudler wine can only be made in certain parts of the Burgenland and its production outside of these designated areas is prohibited under EU law, due to concerns of a phytosanitary nature. This imposed exclusivity has caused the wine to enjoy a renaissance of sorts, as oenophiles seek out unusual wines that have been made by small producers.

The European Parliament was asked in a written question last year why the ban, which lasts until 2030, is still in place, to which Commissioner for Agriculture Phil Hogan replied that wine grape classification is a competence of the member states and that no new scientific information had been provided for Brussels’ stance on the matter to change.

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However, last November, some wineries received clearing notices with an imposed deadline of 15 March. Specifically, those areas that had been planted and cultivated after 2003 were affected, as they are in breach of a planting prohibition. The winemakers that have been ordered to clear or ‘grub up’ their crop have, unsurprisingly, refused to do so, as they fundamentally disagree with the EU regulation governing the production of wine.

Local authorities are expected to enforce the law and order the offending individuals to comply with the notice.

Whether this will happen, remains to be seen, as the wine sector is an important and valuable part of the region’s economy. It is hoped that the Austrian Wine Law will be amended so that the grape varieties currently banned can be reclassified as “fruit wines”.

To preserve the regional flavour that has built up around Uhudler, the European Commission has been asked to designate it as a protected designation of origin, a mark that is awarded to unique products such as parmesan cheese and champagne.

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Discussions are also being held in the region to exploit the tourism opportunity that Uhudler presents, by setting up a cultural centre and wine trail, as well as organising demonstrations on how the wine is made.

A situation has therefore developed, in which proponents of the Burgenland winemaking industry are fighting against European Union lawmakers, yet on the other hand, are pursuing their help by applying for PDO recognition and funding for projects that will total €280,000.

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