Cider drinkers out to give Brussels a headache

Apple wine, the tangy drink famed for its thumping hangovers, is fuelling a crucial election campaign in Germany, pitting regional patriots against the bureaucrats of Brussels.

The European Commission wants to strip the wine label from bottles of the cider-like drink, known locally as Ebbelwoi, on the ground that it is not made from grapes. Yet Ebbelwoi has been drunk, and marketed as wine, since the 16th century in the state of Hesse.

It is part of the region’s historical identity and tourist trade. Tens of thousands of visitors to Frankfurt travel to the apple-wine cellars and taverns of nearby Sachsenhausen to sample the drink, which usually contains between 5 and 7 per cent alcohol. It is often drunk with sugary lemonade, hence the headaches and a reputation, especially among Asian tourists, for loosening the bowels.

“We cannot allow this history, this original Hessian product, to be robbed of its tradition by a change of name ordained from above,” Martin Heil, manager of a leading apple-wine cellar, said.

Under the Commission proposal, tabled in July, the EU definition of wine should conform to the rules of the International Wine Organisation. It should be made from grapes, not apples or other fruit.

The people of Hesse, passions stoked by politicians who go to the polls in January, started a “Save our Apple Wine!” campaign. Bottles of the misty alcohol were sent to Brussels along with petitions gathered in pubs and wine bars.

Now Roland Koch, the prime minister of Hesse, says that he has been promised an opt-out by Mariann Fischer Boel, the EU Farm Commissioner, and he seems confident that this will win him reelection. He received appropriate assurances from Ms Boel in a conversation on Tuesday, he said yesterday.

The account of the conversation falls a little short of wholehearted support for Ebbelwoi. “The Commissioner made plain that she was impressed by the exceptional and very emotional engagement of people for the apple wine and that she understood its significance for Hesse,” a spokesman for the Hesse government said.

Will she secure an opt-out for the cider, and for the equally sensitive fruit wine of Brandenburg? So far 950 amendments to the Commission proposal have been lodged, not only from the German dissidents, and hearings are scheduled in a fortnight at the Agriculture Committee of the European Parliament. Plans are afoot to send Katja the First, the glamorous Wine Queen of Sachsenhausen, to press the German case.

The fear is that the Ebbelwoi could still fall foul of horse trading among the big wine-producing nations before the final decision is reached next month.

The election is important for Mr Koch. He has long been touted as a possible Christian Democrat replacement for Angela Merkel, should her grand coalition Government with the Social Democrats collapse.

Mr Koch has always favoured a more business-friendly, tax-cutting alliance with the liberal Free Democrats. To stay in the national political marketplace, however, he needs a resounding victory in January in Hesse.

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