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French vintners want US chateaux kept out of EU

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BRUSSELS — Drinking a Bordeaux wine from a "chateau" is as French as swigging Kentucky bourbon is American.

But now tempers are flaring across the vineyards of France. The United States wants to sell some of its wines in the European Union with — sacrilege — a "chateau" or "clos" label.

Cheating. Misappropriation. Distortion — the issue has the Bordelais turning claret with anger.

"What is at stake is the respect for tradition and quality," Laurent Gapenne of Chateau de Laville and president of the Federation des Grand Vins de Bordeaux told the Associated Press.

For American vintners it is a question of selling more wine in their top export market, unshackled by historic language or restrictive terms in the world of 21st century globalization.

"People use words in different ways," WineAmerica chief operation officer Cary Greene told the AP, arguing there should be no ban on U.S. bottles carrying the word "chateau."

The French, on the other hand, argue that hundreds of years of craft are at stake. They're worried that the cachet a mention of "chateau" or "clos" — which shows the origin of the wine — carries is diluted if other winemakers started to stick it on their bottles in Europe.

On Tuesday, EU experts from the different member states will look whether that should be permitted, with a decision imminent.

"I cannot understand that they would yield on this," Gapenne said, setting high stakes for the latest skirmish in a trans-Atlantic wine war that has seen the United States growing from upstart to an increasingly confident competitor on world markets.

U.S. founding father Thomas Jefferson was enamored with French wines and the French held dominance over world wine traffic until well after World War II. Then came the 1976 "Judgment of Paris," when, to French astonishment, California won a major blind taste test over French wines. To this day, that event is considered the "tasting that changed the wine world."

That never sat well with the French, and since then wine relations have often had an edge to them.

So when the European Commission decided to act on a U.S. request to regain permission to export 'chateau' and 'clos'-labeled wines to Europe — including France — the anger was palpable.

"The European Commission is bartering our heritage and our economic clout at the expense of globalization," said Gapenne.

For the U.S., the benefits of tapping the European market are clear. Even though it is declining, the 27-nation European Union still accounts for 57 percent of the global wine consumption.

Last year, 34 percent of U.S. wine exports by value went to the EU, accounting for $478 million. And the industry is counting on removing trade barriers worldwide to push exports even more.

In comparison, the EU said its exports to the United States stood at €2.2 billion ($2.86 billion) last year, boosted by many of the top-edge chateau and clos vintages that have come to define the continent's best wines. The global turnover of France's Bordeaux wines stood at €4.2 billion and 55,000 jobs while the Burgundy region added €1 billion and 20,000 jobs last year.

While the Americans feel they are unfairly locked out of a market, the French feel centuries of careful cultivation is being thrown up for grabs.

"There would not be a level playing field," Gapenne said.

While French chateau bottles find their origins in wines made at the estate from grapes belonging to the chateau, the U.S. definition for export would use less stringent conditions on provenance. It could include grapes from "vines that have been traditionally used by this wine producer or producer group."

"We think the definition we presented is fair and reasonable," said Greene. "The definitions we put forward, we believe accurately reflect what we think the market place can stand and what consumers can understand."

For the French, the very francophone origins of the name, argue differently. "The Americans could create 'chateau' wines from grapes from all over and prices would of course be much lower," Gapenne said. "The consumer would be buying a 'chateau' wine with the idea of quality that represents our definition," while in fact it doesn't, he argued.

Several dozen premium wineries in the United States have already used the 'chateau' and 'clos' designation in the past. They were allowed to export wines bearing such labels for three years in the wake of a 2006 trans-Atlantic wine agreement, but that loophole was closed in 2009.

Names and denominations of origins have a long tradition to create trade friction, affecting everything from Greek feta cheese to Lebanese hummus. In the 2006 agreement, for example, the EU said it was able to contain the use of such terms like Champagne and Port in the United States.

Any dilution of the typical French winery terms would undermine their standing in the world, said Gapenne.

Once the United States breaks the French hold on the term in Europe, it would set a bad precedent. "It would become extremely difficult to stop other producing countries" to use the term, Gapenne's FGVB said in In a statement.

"In the midterm, the notion would be totally discredited and empty of any meaning," the FGVB said.