China trade dispute worries EU wine exporters

European wine producers working to drum up new business in the promising Chinese market expressed frustration Thursday as an escalating trade dispute put their industry in the crosshairs.

Chinese state media added fuel to the row with threatening rhetoric warning the European Union of further action after Beijing announced it had begun an anti-dumping probe into wine imports from the bloc.

The move came after the European Commission slapped tariffs on solar import panels from China, putting mounting pressure on the huge trade relationship between them.

At the same time, winemakers and sellers converged the China National Convention Center in Beijing for an international wine exhibition.

"It's too bad that when countries have issues with Europe or France they use wine as a weapon," said Jean-Benoit Kelagopian, export director for the Cave de Tain winery in France's Rhone Valley.

"Wine is a product that is all about sharing a lifestyle, sharing fun, making friends," he said. "It's about civilisation."

French and European wines enjoy no subsidies, he added, saying that his product was being unfairly targeted.

Stephane Donze, who owns the Chateau Martinat estate in France's Bordeaux region, said his exports to China had been improving yearly and now accounted for up to 10 percent of annual overseas sales.

"The market is huge in China," he said at his exhibition booth. "More and more people are drinking red wines now."

Donze suggested the EU move against China was ill-conceived and expressed frustration with the attitude of France, which has supported the solar tariffs move.

"I was a little bit upset against the French government," he said, noting that President Francois Hollande wants to sell more French agriculture products to China.

"I think it was not necessary to go so far," he said of the EU move, though he acknowledged there was a need to protect the solar panel industry.

"Everybody has to bear in mind that we are one of the biggest export items for France," he said of wine. "And nobody cares today about that. I think we are against the wall."

China is the EU's second-largest trading partner with $546 billion (418 billion euros) in two-way business last year, according to Beijing's figures, with the bloc's exports to China totalling $212 billion.

Beijing "will safeguard its major economic interests -- and it has ample cards in hand to do so", the English-language China Daily said in an editorial.

Separately, the Global Times newspaper hinted China could rethink its European bond holdings and investments.

"It is the situation on the battlefield which determines how negotiations proceed in warfare," it said it its editorial. "Trade wars are similar."

Despite the harsh tone in the state press, the exhibition hall buzzed with activity. Booths were set up by an array of wine-producing countries, including Greece, the United States, Hungary, Italy and Australia.

Portuguese winemaker Adega Cooperativa Da Vermelha currently exports mainly to countries in Africa with links to Portugal such as Angola and Mozambique, as well as to Russia and Poland, but aims to break into China.

"I think it's one of our best markets in the future," sales manager Nuno Rodrigues said, though he expressed worry about the potential impact of the dispute.

"It is very bad for us" if China moves to restrict European wine imports, he said.

But Heinrich Vollmer, president of Germany's Weingut Heinrich Vollmer, was less worried.

His company has been selling wine in China for five years and he expressed confidence the political dispute would be resolved by the time his wine makes further inroads into the country. "We are thinking long-term," he said.