The European Union can be protectionist. Like most national and multinational trading organisations; that’s part of its raison d’etre. It can also be overly cautious, and it is undoubtedly bureaucratic.
These were all reasons why Britons who supported the rupture of their country’s relationship with the EU believed Brexit would improve their commercial and daily lives. Especially as UK politicians clearly promised there would be no reduction in standards of food and drink.
Seven years since the vote,and nearly three years after its outcome came into effect, few would argue that Brexit has been an economic success but, apart from the inconvenience of longer queues at airports and hassles when buying goods online from the EU, the move has not had much impact on most British citizens’ daily lives. Some will regret not being able to study, live and work on the European mainland as easily in the past, or to employ European workers in the UK. Musicians and other performers have also had issues, but these, as I say, have not affected the vast majority of the populace. (Economists will, of course, point to higher UK inflation, but the government has attributed that to the pandemic and the conflict in Ukraine).
Not for sale in EU
Things are changing, however. The divergence in food standards has led to UK supermarket shoppers now finding themselves buying products with ‘Not for Sale in EU’ stickers and, now, wine is becoming part of this picture. The British government took a first step in ploughing its own furrow by introducing a highly complex excise duty system linked to alcoholic strength. This was almost universally opposed by the UK wine trade, who merely slowed its implementation. A set of recent measures, removing EU regulations that “stifle innovation” and “prevent the introduction of more efficient and sustainable practices” is sure to have a greater impact.
Beer-cap English fizz?
Among these, some are unexceptionable. Makers of sparkling wines will be allowed to seal their bottles with alternatives to mushroom-shape closures and without any foil. So, English examples could come with a crown cap, for example; however, given their super-premium prices, few producers are likely to take advantage of this.
Producers will now be allowed to print ABV as a tenth of a percent, revealing, for example, that their wine has 13.3% alcohol rather than 13 or 13.5%. This makes sense in the context of the new duty regime, but whether the stated figure will be any more accurate remains to be seen.
UK producers concerned by climate change may welcome greater freedom to use hybrid grapes, though the increasing popularity of PIWIs in Germany and Italy in particular, suggests that this is questionable as a benefit of quitting the EU.
Greater freedom over packaging, “ending outdated protectionist rules… giving producers the freedom to use bottle shapes they could not previously use for their wines”, could open the way to more environmentally-friendly square bottles for example, though one media suggestion that Britons will be able to buy Alsace wine in anything other than a flute seemed unlikely, given the rules on bottling it in the region.
Industry members at both ends of the chain will welcome the news that back labels will now not have to reveal the name and address of the importer but, from January 2024, they will still have to have a Food Business Operator (FBO) number. This needs to be applied for in the UK but, as importer and frequent Brexit critic, Daniel Lambert, has pointed out on social media, the relevant authorities seemed unprepared for his application. Lambert who has moved to France, now advises his UK customers to print FBO, followed by his British postcode.
Of course many importers who have yet to get their FBO, do have stock labelled with the name and address details that they had been given to believe they would need. They resent the waste of time and money devoted in previous months to unnecessary printing.
Thus far, there is little in these changes that will do much to change the UK wine landscape. The following, however, are likely to do just that.
Say hello to Piquette
Allowing the production of Piquette is controversial. Historically, the practise of refermenting skins and possibly stalks from which wine has been pressed was associated with a cheap, low-strength, and quite probably vinegary beverage for the poor. It was also a means of increasing yields and was used as such in Canada in the 1970s. Today, the word is still synonymous in France with bad, spoiled, wine and, in its efforts to restrict European overproduction, the EU outlaws its production, Piquette has, however, developed a following among the natural wine fraternity in particular and visitors to trendy New York wine bars are almost sure to come across it. And the same will soon be true in London, it seems, as the style becomes legal.
But how will the Piquette be labelled? This question is prompted by the most significant of the changes to UK legislation. EU rules stating that fermented grape juice with less than 8.5% (with a few exceptions) could not be described as wine are being ditched. So, wine that has been dealcoholized completely and had the colour lost in that process replaced, will, it seems legally fall under the same category as Romanée-Conti.
British importers will also be free to carbonate imported wine and to blend wines from several countries. Again, this is an extension rather than an overturning of EU rules. Blending cheap French and Spanish wine is commonplace, which explains why the former country is such a big importer of bulk wine from the latter. But any such mixture has to be labelled as ‘Product of the European Community’ and cannot have the name of a grape variety on its label. No blend of two or more non-EU country wines, or of wines combining EU and non-EU grapes may be sold in the 27 countries.
In Britain, however, it will, it seems, be legal, for example, to blend French, Chilean and Hungarian Merlot. Even while in the EU, the UK has an ignoble history of doing this kind of thing – with ‘British Wine’ – produced by fermenting imported grape concentrate. Buyers of Three Mills Sauvignon Blanc ‘crafted in our Norfolk Winery’ by Broadland Drinks may have little idea that the cheap liquid in their glass has nothing to do with grapes grown in Norfolk or any other part of the British Isles.
‘British wine’ used to benefit from lower excise duty. This is no longer the case, but that advantage will apply to imported bulk ‘wine’ that is partly dealcoholized, blended and generally tricked up to align with lower tax rates. So, since the new tax regime came into force, a growing number of wines with a declared ABV of 10% have appeared on retail shelves. These are taxed at £2.57 per 75cl bottle (when one includes 20% VAT sales tax), rather than the £3.20 that would be levied on a wine with 11.5% or more.
For the moment, that £3.20 figure would also apply to a wine at 13.5%, but unless the government changes its mind, in early 2025, it will be subject to tax of £3.46. Compare this – or the £3.72 for a 14.5% Australian or California red to the £2.18 payable on a beverage whose strength has been reduced to 8.5%, or the zero-tax levelled on a zero-alcohol ‘wine’ and it is clear how big an incentive there will be for importers to become very creative.
How long before UK shoppers are offered a cheap fizz made from bulk Spanish Airén, but carbonated in an English ‘winery’ and smartly bottled with an English-sounding name like Three Mills?
UK wine professionals, at least some of whom apparently welcome these new moves, will claim that consumers will be free to make their own choice between ‘real’ wine and beverages that have been engineered to accommodate a UK tax regime.
Some, of course, will, but, as anyone who has studied public awareness of food and drink across the world can confirm, the majority will continue to buy quickly and instinctively, picking up familiar names at the lowest prices. So prospects for multi-country 5% Pinot Grigio seem bright.
These post-Brexit changes will now expose UK consumers to potentially underhand behaviour from which those boring Brussels bureaucrats once protected them. They will also help to dent Britain’s already-declining reputation as one of the centres of wine expertise and excellence.