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Vintage traditions coming to end in Europe

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Associated Press / December 20, 2007

BRUSSELS - It's the Christmas season and wine merchant Willy Goorden's business has been brisk. His consumers, though, no longer keep up with tradition the way they used to.

"I got this phone call from a customer asking for New Zealand's Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc," Goorden said. "Ten years ago, they would have been asking for a French Bordeaux."

Feeling sustained heat from New World upstarts, Old Europe revamped its wine industry yesterday with a groundbreaking agreement certain to cause traditionalists to gag on their vintage Burgundies.

Changes include tearing up vast swaths of vineyards, getting rid of overly intricate labeling, and aggressively marketing to consumers around the world instead of relying on age-old reputations.

Increasingly burdened by overproduction, imports from abroad, and more temperate consumers at home, Europe's wine industry has been mired in crisis. For every top-notch Bordeaux producer, there was a wine farmer producing insipid plonk who could no longer make ends meet - unless the government bailed him out.

"We were heading for the abyss," said Portuguese Farm Minister Jaime Silva.

That was clear in Goorden's wine shop on the outskirts of Brussels.

"The old folks still ask for a classic French bottle. Anyone younger may pick a Chile, Australia, or South Africa wine," said Goorden.

Now, Europe will promote more single-grape wines like Syrah or Sauvignon Blanc, much like the New World has done for a generation. And instead of fancy labels designating tiny plots in faraway places and arcane production methods, simplicity is the new order of the day.

The European Union will no longer prop up money-losing vintners as it had in the past.

France has suffered chronic overproduction. Under new rules, farmers will be compensated for digging up some 5 percent of vineyards to curb overproduction. Ambitious plans to let profitable wine producers expand their holdings at will were approved, but not before 2015 at the earliest.

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