Europe's small-scale wine producers, usually in competition with one another, have come together to fight what they see as the two biggest threats to their industry: the EU and multinational corporations.
More than 700 small wine producers met in Italy to exchange ideas
In France they're called vignerons, in Italy, vignaioli: small-scale wine producers who do everything from growing and harvesting the grapes to transforming them into wine in their cellars, then bottling and selling it.
But, throughout Europe, the future of these artisan winemakers is under threat for a variety of reasons.
In an attempt to address their problems and come up with some common solutions, the Slow Food organization invited winemakers from across the continent to participate in a three-day meeting of Vignerons d'Europe.
Over 700 artisan wine producers and enologists from 16 European countries met in the Tuscan spa town of Montecatini Terme last weekend to compare ideas and experiences.
Global demand for high-quality wines has dropped in recent years
"I wanted to meet other vignerons and speak about our problems all together," said Stefania Pepe, who makes organic, unfiltered Montepulciano d'Abruzzo in central Italy. "The problems I have in my vineyard in Abruzzo may be similar to the problems they have in France or Portugal or Slovenia."
While winemakers have traditionally viewed each other as competition, Vignerons d'Europe aims to unite them and create a network.
"For me it's really important to feel I'm not just an Italian winegrower but part of a group of European growers," said Elena Pantaleoni, owner of La Stoppa vineyard.
The situation for European vignerons is critical, not least because over the past year there's been a huge drop in the price of grapes and demand for good quality wines worldwide.
"We're drinking a lot more large-volume, manufactured wine than we used to," said international wine journalist Paul White. "The niche markets for these small artisanal producers have dried up, primarily because of the global economic crisis. Everyone's drinking down."
Artisans versus industries
Vignerons work hard at protecting their vines, hand-selecting their grapes and keeping their wines as unadulterated and additive-free as possible. They say they cannot compete with lower quality, industrially produced wines which are cheaper.
They are therefore angry that current EU legislation makes no distinction between the two.
The issue of sulfites is a prime example. All wine that contains them must be clearly marked "contains sulfites". Since small amounts occur naturally in their grapes, European vignerons are obliged to use the same labels as industrial producers who add large quantities of them.
Vignerons would therefore like a separate label like winemakers have in the USA: to indicate that their wines contain only naturally occurring sulfites. They say that regulations like this one, aimed at their industrial counterparts, actually make their lives even more difficult.
Small winemakers say EU rules favor larger producers
"The European Community is not working for the small, agricultural workers but rather for big, multinational industries," said Chianti producer Rolando Bettarini, adding that the EU should support them by protecting and promoting their traditional, sustainable winemaking methods.
"We should be given extra help and consideration because vignerons don't only produce wine, we protect nature by taking care of the environment and preserving the landscape. "
The Vignerons are hoping to make their voice heard through a European Manifesto of Sustainable Winegrowing and Winemaking, which they drew up during the meeting.
"It's very important because we are all in the same situation in Spain, Italy, France, Switzerland and Germany. We are up against a very big machine," said Claude Serra, who makes wine in the Languedoc region of France.
"But if we vignerons are all together, we can make the law change," she added.
The vignerons hope their manifesto will not only convince lawmakers but also help European wine consumers that the wine produced by a vigneron is a different product than their mass-produced cousins.
Vignerons say their wines taste better than industrially produced brands
"They have to know that this is a safe wine, made by someone who loves the land and takes care of the process from vineyard to bottle," said Stefania Pepe. "They have to recognize the difference between our wines - which have rich, subtle flavors and won't give you a headache - and industrially produced wines."
By creating a strong and visible identity through their network, the Vignerons d'Europe are hopeful they can create greater public awareness and appreciation for their product.
"It's a question of quality," says German enologist, Uwe Hoffman of the International Consultancy of Organic Viticulture. "The consumer has to see that if he wants to live in a good, healthy environment in the future, he has to pay for it."
Author: Dany Mitzman (vj)
Editor: Sam Edmonds