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Don't Call It A Malbec: Europe Sours On British Winery's Plan

The European Union is forcing a British winery to give away wine made with Argentinian Malbec grapes. Here, a cluster of Malbec grapes hang from a vine.
Eric Risberg
The European Union is forcing a British winery to give away wine made with Argentinian Malbec grapes. Here, a cluster of Malbec grapes hang from a vine.

A British winemaker has finally been given official approval to release a limited-edition wine made in collaboration with Malbec grape growers in Argentina, on one condition: It can't sell the wine, or label it a Malbec. Actually, it can't even call it wine at all.

The Chapel Down winery's only option for getting rid of its wine is to give it away as a sample, calling it a "fruit-derived alcoholic beverage from produce sourced outside the EU."

That's the ruling from the European Union, which is strict about how its member countries can produce and label wine. The regulations seek to protect wineries and grape growers from an influx of cheap grapes from foreign sources — which might then be labeled as "produced in Europe," and priced below the native competition. A Spectator blog post details those concerns.

The EU decision thwarted exhaustive preparations by Chapel Down for a wine it calls "An English Salute," with a release date that was supposed to coincide with this year's World Malbec Day.

At the end of last year's harvest, some 4,600 pounds of fresh Malbec grapes were flown from Argentina to the Chapel Down facility in Kent, England, where they were fermented and aged for nine months in American oak barrels.

The grapes came from vineyards near Mendoza, Argentina, owned by the Gaucho Restaurant Group. The restaurant had planned to sell the wine in its Argentine-style steakhouses in Britain. Instead, Chapel Down is stuck with more than 1,000 bottles of unsaleable wine.

The conflict first came to light last month, when the EU told Chapel Down that its efforts to make a Malbec were poorly conceived.

The Drinks Business site had this reaction from CEO Frazer Thompson, after he was told his plans had gone sour:

"'Because the grapes were grown outside of the EU but the wine was made at Chapel Down we have run into a problem,' said an exasperated Thompson."

"...'The wine is sensational but we now have 1,100 bottles which are illegal to label or sell as either Malbec or wine.'"

"'It's ridiculous,' said Thompson. 'We could make a beer in Kent with American hops or a vodka with Russian grain, but when it comes to wine different rules clearly apply which doesn't make sense at all.'"

Over at the Wine Anorak site, a reviewer who tasted the wine calls it "sweet, aromatic, fresh cherry and berry fruits nose, with hints of sweet wild herbs. The palate is fresh and a bit peppery, with sweet berry fruits and some herby notes. Midweight and expressive, this is a joyful, pretty wine: Beaujolais meets the Languedoc!"

In Britain, the clash over the "fruit derived alcoholic beverage" is the latest in a string of disagreements with the EU. Earlier this month some Brits were angered by the group's decision to ban "de-sinewed meat."

And to the press, the failed Malbec collaboration also represents a lost chance to put the names "Britain" and "Argentina" in headlines that didn't recount the ongoing dispute over the Falkland Islands. The 30th anniversary of Argentina's invasion of the islands came earlier this month, complete with the airing of past grievances.

But that was not to be, as the European Commission seems to have viewed the Argentinian collaboration with Chapel Down as a possible Trojan Horse scheme, in which a friendly subterfuge might open the floodgates for an overwhelming army of powerfully juicy grapes.

On its website, Chapel Down seems to be trying to make the best of things.

"This is a chance for fans of English and Argentinian wine to get their hands on something that is genuinely unique," CEO Thompson is quoted as saying. The site notes, "It will, quite literally, be impossible to buy."

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.