Who would be a vigneron?

Amidst the general doom and gloom in the caves cooperatives of France’s
largest wine producing region – the Languedoc-Roussillon – there are several
reasons for hope. Basil Howitt’s report finishes with the huge injection of
Mexican capital into the vines around Feilluns, a tiny village of 60 souls
on the way to nowhere, deep in Le Fenouillèdes (P.-O.).

The catastrophic decline in wine production in the Languedoc-Roussillon
région is now widely known. Not least because of the [aggressive
demonstrations in Montpellier last November->http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KYJQoEtUAo0 and
http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xb9ymv_manifestation-regionale-vignerons-m_news] of embittered vignerons no
longer able to scrape a living from their labours.

Nothing new in all this of course. In 1907 the ancestors of these same
vignerons brought France “to the brink of collapse” in revolts far more
violent than those of today.

In the face of devastating global competition, especially from the New
World, there are simply fewer and fewer vines now left for the vignerons to
work, and smaller returns on those that are left. Since 2004 the industry,
already battered, has continued to contract. Following an intensive EU
campaign of arrachage or grubbing up to reduce the European wine lake, there
has been a 13% overall reduction in the surface areas devoted to vines.

Some realists will say this is all to the good. Too much wine produced in
the past has been too mediocre.

Here are a few facts and figures sourced mainly from INSEE (France’s Office
of National Statistics):

– Since 2004 vignerons in the P.-O. were invited to grub up permanently
all or part of their working vines for a premium of between 6,000 and 8,000
euros per hectare, according to precisely specified caveats,. (A hectare is
10,000 square metres or approximately 2.5 acres.) The other four
départements in the région were included in the scheme from 2005. The hope
was that vignerons would use their capital to invest in other projects.
– By the end of the 5th regional campaign in 2009, 40,000 hectares of
vines had disappeared. In this same year production declined to a historic
low of 12 million hectolitres (= c.263,963,098 gallons) – 4 million less
than in 2006. Difficult climatic conditions (heat and drought in 2009) also
contributed to this new low.

(A hectolitre is 100 litres.)

3 Unemployment 3

– Little wonder, then, that the Languedoc-Roussillon has been
registering the country’s highest regional unemployment rate of 13.3%
against a national average of c.7.8%. And little wonder also that
unemployment in the P.-O. is topping the chart of France’s 96 départements
at 13.8%.
– RMI or unemployment benefit figures in January 2009 ranged from 454.63
euros for a single person to 945.73 euros for a married couple with two
children, plus 181.85 for each additional child.

3 Caves cooperatives in the Pyrénées-Orientales 3

The département now has 32 working caves cooperatives as against 62 in 2001.
Back in 1935 72,000 hectares were under vine cultivation against 29,000 in
2008. In 2009 less than 800,000 hectolitres of wine were produced – a drop
of 20% from 2008.

Some effective moves to buck the trend

3 “Sud de France” 3

Nobody can complain that nothing has been done to boost the region’s wine
sales. Regular readers will know how much I admire Georges Frêche, the
recently re-elected president of the Languedoc-Roussillon. Under his
visionary leadership the region adopted in 2006 a new marque or brand, Sud
de France, to help market its products, wine in particular. This has helped
customers abroad not familiar with the complicated “Appellation” system for
classifying and labelling French wines to recognise those wines that
originated in the Languedoc-Roussillon. The Sud de France brand is also used
for other products, including cheeses, olive oils and pies. Thanks to Frêche’s
tireless initiatives, promotional Houses of the Languedoc-Roussillon/Sud de
France have now been set up in London, Shanghai, Milan and New York.

3 Cave mergers in the Agly valley 3

Enterprising caves cooperatives, instead of wringing their hands, have
merged to reduce production costs and other overheads – and also, above all,
to improve the quality of the wines.

In the Agly valley, the Vignerons de Tremoine set the trend in 1992 by a
merger between the caves of Rasiguères (internationally famous for its rosé)
and Lansac, which had already merged with St Arnac. Nearly 20 years later
the vignerons of Cassagnes and Belesta joined the Tremoine group, in which
80 vignerons now produce 20,000 hectolitres of wine from 600 hectares.

Similar mergers close by have taken place between the caves of Estagel,
Montner, St Paul and Caudiès to form the very successful Côtes d’Agly.

3 Quality! 3

What a difference all this has made! When I first started drinking
Rasiguères wines in 1983 – as a cellist in the Manchester Camerata that
performed for many years in the village’s Festival of Music and Wine – the
quality was unacceptably inconsistent from year to year. Even the famed rosé
was sometimes flavourless, whilst the red was sometimes undrinkable – except
for certain hard-bitten musicians with cast-iron stomachs who were getting
the stuff for free. One flautist was christened Rouge by the vignerons
because he was never, ever, seen without a bottle of same in his hand.

The quality has now improved out of all recognition, mainly because of
improved fermentation and storage techniques.

3 Feilluns: a snip at 2,000,000 euros

Old stock at high altitude 3

Feilluns, altitude 450 metres in the heart of the beautiful oak-strewn
Fenouillèdes, has a mere 60 souls and is on the way to nowhere – you have to
divert to it via an acute bend when travelling from Ansignan to Le Vivier or
Sournia. On entering the village you pass a huge plane tree planted in 1848
(Arbre de la Liberté) then take a street that passes the church and reaches
the imposing cave cooperative, gaudily decorated in art nouveau style.

The Mexican consortium Vyva Francia, which includes 7 oenologists led by
Hugo D’Acosta, has agreed to shell out 2,000,000 euros for the village’s 60
hectares of vines, the cave itself and materials. The consortium has been
searching the whole area for vines of old stock at high altitude.

Vyva Francia has already invested in another beautiful village not far away
and almost as remote, Lesquerde, hanging over the Agly valley above
St-Paul-de-Fenouillet. Here they have installed Jérôme Semper to manage the
vines of La Colline des Vents.

Here are the main features of the deal at Feilluns.

– It has been brokered over a period 18 months by SAFER – a network of
societies specialising in the sale of rural land and properties. Elsewhere
in the area SAFER has already brokered the purchase of 170 hectares of vines
up to a hundred years old, to be worked by 13 young vignerons. Note the word
“young”!
– The first harvest at Feilluns under the new régime was in 2009. D’Acosta,
who owns a 200 hectare wine estate in California, is keen to work with local
expertise to discover “what type of wine we can make and sell”.
– Initially the range of wines will be sold in Mexico at between 7 and
25 euros a bottle. The planned yield will be 28 hectolitres per hectare,
with a total production of around 1,500 hectolitres.
– D’Acosta and the consortium have hired a young Feillunois, François
Raynaud, as chef de culture (chief grower). He and others will be invited to
Mexico so that both sides can benefit from each other’s expertise.
– D’Acosta will come over 5 times a year including 2 months for the
vendange.

So – I ask again – who would be a vigneron? Certainly those young men in
Feilluns and Lesquerde funded by Vyva Francia would. So also would the
vignerons belonging to the many caves cooperatives that have merged,
invested and innovated.

And so also, of course, would the many highly successful proprietors of
private domaines in the région who have been consistently selling superb
wines year after year: Boudau of Rivesaltes and Gauby of Calce spring
immediately to mind but there are many others.

But if you are an ageing vigneron and see your income dwindling each year to
the point where – like one of our dear neighbours – you cannot even afford
to buy fertiliser and mildew treatments, the answer must be “when can I hang
up my secateurs, sell my tractor and live on the RMI?”

3 References and follow-up 3

[France’s minimum social security payments->http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Revenu_minimum_d’insertion]
[Latest INSEE figures 2009/2010->http://www.insee.fr/fr/insee_regions/languedoc/themes/synthese/syn1003/viticulture.pdf]
Jean-Paul Pelras (always a mine of information): articles in L’Indépendant
08/04/2010 and 24/04/2010
[1907 vignerons’ revolts->http://benoitcurinier.blogspot.com/2007/12/retour-sur-1907-2007.html]

© 2010 Basil Howitt

[(Basil Howitt has also written
[Life in a Penguin Suit->Life in a Penguin Suit] (Camerata Productions 1993)
[Love Lives of the Great Composers->Love Lives of the Great Composers] (Sound and Vision 1995)
[Grand Passions and Broken Hearts: Lives and Lusts of the Great Composers->Grand Passions and Broken Hearts: Loves and Lusts of the Great Composers] (Robson Books 1998)
[More Love Lives of the Great Composers->More Love Lives of the Great Composers] (Sound And Vision 2002)
Walter and His Daughters: The Story of the Carroll Family of Manchester (Forsyth Brothers Ltd 2005)

[(You can contact Basil by email: [basil.howitt@packsurfwifi.com->basil.howitt@packsurfwifi.com)]


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