European Winemakers May Have to Turn a Billion Liters of Wine into Industrial Alcohol

Coronavirus has been a devastating blow to an already struggling EU wine market.

Having an extra billion bottles of wines lying around might sound great—until you actually think about the repercussions. Where are you going to store it? Your 24 bottle wine rack only has three open spots! And how are you going to drink it? Who knows how long you'll have to wait to host another dinner party! Joking aside, these are real problems European winemakers are facing due to surplus spurred on by the coronavirus outbreak. And the solution is extremely disheartening: A likely scenario is that much of this excess wine will be distilled down into industrial alcohol.

Even before COVID-19, the European wine industry was facing headwinds: Brexit, Trump’s trade war, and a new deal between China and Australia had already cut into business. “The problem is that 2019 was not a good year for us, and that this year we are facing a crisis that we have never experienced before,” Alexandre They, chairman of the French-based Independent Winemakers’ Federation, told The Times UK.

Wine bottle in a wine rack
Carl Pendle/Getty Images

According to the European wine trade group Comité Européen des Entreprises Vins (CEEV), the crisis has included a 30 percent drop in volume and 50 percent drop in value of the EU wine market due to the COVID-19-related closures of hotels, restaurants, and cafes. The group says 100 percent of its members report exports are down since the outbreak began in January. Obviously, tourism is practically non-existent. And even other retail outlets are struggling. “In addition, and after some signs of stockpiling [in] early March, sales went down again also in supermarkets at the end of the month, reinforcing the negative trend of the wine market,” CEEV President Jean-Marie Barillere said in an announcement.

As a result, Eric Andrieu—a French Member of the European Parliament—has said that Europe as a whole may have about one billion liters of wine that won’t be able to be sold, according to The Drinks Business. And making matters worse, another harvest is coming up relatively quickly, meaning tanks and storage space need to be emptied to make room before the new grapes are picked.

To deal with the situation, the CEEV is asking the EU for a “COVID-19 Wine Package” on Friday, requesting assistance and regulatory changes from the EU government—with both short and long term recovery measures in mind: things like freezing economic resources, further flexibility with promotional programs, lower taxes, updated legal frameworks, and even helping U.S. exports by playing ball with President Trump. Barillere also stated, “'In the short term, we need to consider that the reduced wine sales and the high level of wine stocks may provoke problems in the normal balance of the wine market.” So the CEEV asked that steps be taken to deal with that issue.

However, if all else fails, wineries will be forced to result to “crisis distillation”—a decision that actually needs EU government approval to move forward. To be fair, as horrible as it sounds, at least it provides something to winemakers. “Distillation is an alternative, certainly less remunerative than the sale of wine, but one which will allow wine growers to get by and to be able to also harvest in 2020,” Andrieu was quoted as saying by The Drinks Business. “What is more, the alcohol produced can be used in many sectors, for example for the manufacture of hydroalcoholic gel.”

If it comes to distilling, Andrieu reportedly proposed French winemakers should be paid 80 cents per liter for their excess wine. Sadly, those prices won’t be offered to the public first.

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