TOULON, France (AFP) — Winegrowers in France's picturesque Provence region are pink-faced with fury over EU plans to let producers make rose wine by mixing red and white, saying this risks destroying a local tradition.
Growers across France produce a third of the world's rose but on the Mediterranean coast in particular a glass of dry wine on a hot summer's afternoon, with a dish of olives or grilled fish, is as much a part of local culture as the game of boules.
"Provence is the heartland of rose," said Linda Schaller, of the Chateau Les Crostes outside the village of Lorgues, one of dozens of vineyards that dot the sun-kissed region, half of which make rose.
French winegrowers have fought hard for their pink-coloured wine, long dismissed by purists as low-grade plonk, to be considered on a par with the classic red and white varieties.
Their efforts have paid off in recent years, and the global market is booming, with rose making up a fifth of wine bought in France, where it has overtaken white wine, and one tenth of sales worldwide.
Rose's distinctive pink hue comes from a special technique. Red grape skins are crushed and left in contact with the macerating white juice for a few hours, long enough to gently tint the wine, then removed.
But the European Commission believes fiddly EU rules on how to make rose are holding French, Italian and Spanish producers back in new export markets, including China.
It has adopted a draft trade ruling, to be put to the vote by EU members next month, that would allow wine merchants to mix red with a splash of white, and bottle the result as rose -- heresy as far as France is concerned.
Francois Millo, head of the Provence winegrowers' association, says the ruling would flood the market with poor quality pink plonk, destroying rose's hard-earned image and potentially tens of thousands of French jobs.
"It would be a terrible setback, considering how much the rose market has come along the past 10 years," he warned.
"Other parts of the world do not share France's philosophy of rose. Mixed rose looks like the real thing -- but it is nothing like genuine rose. It doesn't have the taste, the spark, or the quality of rose."
Schaller said it would be "a catastrophe for Provence's winegrowers if this ruling passes."
"They would be robbing us of part of our tradition."
Mixing white with red to make rose is allowed in New World producer regions such as Australia or California but it remains extremely rare, and is frowned upon by most producers.
The method is used by a small number of high-end winegrowers, including in France's Champagne region, and to make a Spanish pink wine called "Mescla," or "Mix," which producers are banned from exporting.
The officially sanctioned way to make rose is by using red grape skins, typically from grenache and syrah varieties, to colour the wine and give it a light, low-tannin flavour similar to white.
Some growers, including in California, also make rose as a by-product of red wine, using a technique called bleeding.
Early in the grape maceration process, part of the juice is siphoned off to concentrate the tannins and colour of the remaining red wine, while the removed juice is fermented separately to produce rose.
Local French officials are urging President Nicolas Sarkozy's government to try to block the EU plans -- or at least demand watertight labelling to protect "traditional" rose if they go ahead.
French Agriculture Minister Michel Barnier has written to the Commission to relay the wine industry's concern about the plans.
The European Commission ruling, part of an ongoing reform of the EU wine sector launched in 2007, was approved by a panel of experts from member states, including from France according to one European source.
It has been sent to the World Trade Organisation for approval and is due to to be put to the vote by EU members on April 27.
A spokesman for the European Commission said Wednesday they were "aware of the concerns of some producer regions, such as Provence," and were looking at ways to respond to them.
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