Makers of some of Europe's most famous wines tried to cork an EU plan to drastically cut production, saying on Wednesday it would jeopardise centuries of tradition.

Earlier, the European Commission endorsed an offer of cash rewards to winemakers to encourage them to dig up some of their vines, as a way to drain vast wine lakes of stockpiled wine. It will now be debated by EU farm ministers.

But for the EU's producers of quality wine, whose labels qualify as protected names, several elements are unacceptable.

Representing winemakers from France, Italy, Portugal and Spain and labels such as Chianti, Rioja, Chablis and Burgundy, they said the plan would hurt sales and threatened their future.

Quality wines have been built around a tradition using certain rules, and these should be kept and respected. This cannot be changed just like that, Joaquim Madeira, president of Portugal's National Association of Viticulture Denominations of Origin (ANDOVI), told a news conference.

We are just opening an opportunity to our competitors with wines that we cannot control. There will be no more guarantees about what is in the bottle so we are not helping the consumer, said Riccardo Ricci Curbastro, a leading producer of Italy's sparkling Franciacorta wines.


Under a five-year scheme to start in August 2008, EU subsidies to abandon vineyards would fall gradually each year: a carrot-and-stick approach to promote early take-up similar to that used in the EU's recent sugar reform.

Also, the Commission plan would alter the rules on criteria for protected wine labels. At the moment, for a wine to qualify for the name of a designation of origin, the grapes must be produced and processed in the delimited area of the wine name.

In the blueprint, authored by EU Agriculture Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel, there would be a new rule that only refers to the grapes' place of origin, saying that 85 or 100 percent of the grapes from that origin would be enough for a wine to qualify for one of the EU's two categories of protected names.

Another big problem for the EU's quality winemakers concerns the cash that would be allocated for marketing and promoting European wines -- an extra 120 million euros ($163.5 million) a year in non-EU countries, but only three million for EU markets.

We believe that it (Commission) has not fully understood where the priorities lie: the smallest budget is allocated to the internal market, which represents 67 percent of the world market, Madeira said.

The EU is the world's largest producer, consumer, exporter and importer of wine. In recent years it has lost part of its traditional export markets to cheaper wines from Australia, Chile and also the United States, and seen a surge in imports.

France, Spain and Italy are the world's largest three winemakers by volume and account for 80 percent of the EU vine area, which currently totals around 3.4 million hectares.