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01.26.2006

Bordeaux vs. Languedoc: The Knives Come Out

Every piece of news about wine coming out of France these days seems laden with misfortune. I shake my head -- partially in sincere pity, partially with the amazement of someone watching a self-induced nervous breakdown. The French just can't seem to get a lucky break, and now it seems they may even be headed for a sort of civil war of vinous proportions.

Before we get to that however, let's review the situation, shall we?

The short story is this -- there's far too much wine in France -- too many barrels filled with stuff that people won't drink (and therefore can't be sold) and too many vineyards growing grapes, that then get turned into that excess wine. Tied up in both those vineyards and the wine are many people's livelihoods, and suffice it to say, those folks ain't doing so well these days. Which is why they are firebombing wineries, dumping truckloads of manure here and there, and bricking up the entrances to important wine related organizations. What they hope to accomplish with these efforts, I don't know. But a lot of people have gone from winegrower to terrorist in the last year or so.

Of course oversupply is only the beginning of a long list of problems that the French wine industry faces, from an outdated appellation system, to a shrinking number of wine drinkers in the country, to insanely archaic laws about how wine can be marketed, the wine industry, especially the lower ends of the market, are up the proverbial shit creek without a paddle.

The government is taking, or attempting to take various measures to alleviate the situation, including distilling some of the excess wine into industrial grade alcohol and even car fuel, and they are also taking a page from the United States playbook of subsidized agriculture and paying / forcing winegrowers to rip out vineyards to stem the tide of unwanted wine.

It's this last measure which seems to be at the heart of some recent vicious remarks traded between Frances most famous wine region (Bordeaux) and it's largest wine producing region by volume (the Languedoc). It seems that in the past year about 28,000 acres (!) of vines in the Languedoc have been pulled up to comply with the government request, but in Bordeaux, only 4,000 acres have been destroyed. This disparity is leading to acute animosity between the winegrowers of each region, and has resulted in some of the first major cross-appellation sniping I've heard of. "We continue to uproot [vines], we send millions of hectoliters to be distilled, while the Bordelais stuff themselves and twirl their moustaches," says one of those winegrowers-turned-terrorist. Apparently the Bordeaux growers also failed to show up and support a demonstration held by Languedoc winemakers earlier in the year. Some people have even been quoted as suggesting that this is a new aparthied. Whoa.

Soon these people will not only be attacking the government and merchant institutions, and their supposed sympathizers, they'll be attacking each other. It boggles my mind. Read the full story.

Please. Someone. Save. France.

Comments (8)

Iris wrote:
01.27.06 at 2:24 AM

Alder, I looked up the original article in Libération (French daily newspaper) from last week. Just two extracts, to illustrate the problem:
While the harvest of September 2005 is in the vats, the market is totally paralysed by a total stock not sold of 40 Millions hl, 11,2 millions coming from the Languedoc region (table wines and AOC), and 11,3 millions (mainly AOC) coming from Bordeaux.
A last fish bone in the throat of Languedoc winemakers: the attitude of some resellers of Bordeaux to get writ of their stock by selling bottles at 1 € in hypermarkets. “That’s really a scandal!” rages Jean Huillet (head of the cooperative wineries in the Hérault region), going on: “They know, that we are economically more fragile then them. Now they are waiting that we give up first and that we deroot everything.”

For the rest, I think that one has to take into consideration, that cooperative leaders in situations of crisis have to speak up loud, to be heard in the mass media, so keywords like "apartheid" and "moustache twirling" are figures of style to attract media attention.

I don't think that it’s a lucky choice, especially, when you find them in international press releases - but I think too that they would have chosen more differentiated formulas, if they had been asked by Decanter itself.

All Languedoc winemakers are not bombing their way through France (most of them are pruning their wines at the moment) and all Bordeaux winemakers are not twirling their moustaches (some of them are very pleased by their Parker notes at the moment) - but there is no doubt that meny of them suffer from the actual crisis and everybody is struggling to find a way out.

chris wrote:
01.27.06 at 6:35 AM

It amazes me that the whole French winemaking industry totally misses the point. 1.They produce and have the potential to produce some of the best wines in the world. The good wines have absolutely no problem selling and the great wines command huge prices and sell out quickly. Subsidies and ripping out vineyards is absurd, what they need is a massive move towards producing better quality wine.Lower yields,better vineyard management,and good winemaking. They think they are doing this and have tasting panels to judge if a wine is up to standard, but the tasters are all local producers who are not representative or expert and have huge vested interest, and then the post tasting controls over what goes in the bottle are lax in the extreem ,so the whole process is a farce. The vignerons and others all complain about the Appellation constraints, and lack of profitability, and expect huge subsidies to prop them up. The French government generally ,after a riot or two, gives in, so nothing changes! 2. They need to identify what consumers want, and then start marketing the wines properly . When was the last or even first time anyone saw good ordinary Bordeaux Rouge promoted at a good accessible price in a supermarket? Bordeaux, and many good Languedoc wines are unique and are particularly good with food. Unlike big over alcholic fruit dominant wines from many ,many parts of the world, which are for most youngsters fine, but for regular wine drinkers boring. Who can tell where a Cabernet Sauvignon in the $5 to $10 dollar range comes from these days, it could be Australia, Argentina, California,Chile, South Africa etc. they all taste the same. The French must market the uniqueness of their wines. I can increasingly see younger drinkers having no understanding of what interesting wine is all about. Much of what they get to drink is a sort of formulaic recipe, a consistant brand of wine type, a sort of Coca Cola or Budwieser of the wine world. The French can't be helped. They need to wake up to the World around them and face up to competition, and sort it out themselves. Better, unique wine properly promoted will do it for them. Vive la differance! Chris.

St.Vini wrote:
01.27.06 at 8:53 AM

Speaking of Government intervention in markets, one solution that is being proposed is for the French government to buy the wine each vintage and sell it both domestically and internationally!

Save the wine industry, lose France....

Vini

(Chris is right about differentiation and brands though!)

Geoff Smith wrote:
01.27.06 at 9:54 AM

Isn't there a similar glut of wine in Australia?

Terry Hughes wrote:
01.27.06 at 1:34 PM

One thing that Americans don't understand very well, IMO, is that the winemakers of France turn "terrorist" not entirely because of economics but because a deeply rooted culture is going through tremendous changes, and these guys are among the biggest losers.

When that happens along with looming economic disaster, people do see things in an apocalyptic way and resort to apocalyptic means to signal their fear and pain. It's like, "Great, we're losing our livelihood AND being reduced to cultural powerlessness too. Where the hell do we fit in now?"

Maybe we can't condone their actions, or stop the forces of market globalization, but we might spend a few moments considering the bleak look of things from their point of view.

VineSci wrote:
01.28.06 at 8:46 PM

To Geoff Smith

Apparently, yes, there's surplus red wine in Australia at the moment. This seems to largely be the result of A$ exchange rate which is quite high and is slowing the predicted exports. Large wine companies are passing this onto growers, lowering the price of grapes to record lows (and further drop is expected). This has additionally been complicated further with market shifts in terms of price categories. Perhaps because of the exchange rate prices have dropped in the ultrapremium and premium wine markets, pushing the prices of popular premium (below A$10) also down. Thus an oversupply of grapes/wine mostly exists (and only applies to reds) in the upper range of prices, affecting cooler/milder Australian regions. Hot irrigated regions are doing fine in terms of glut, however grape growers are extremely unhappy about the prices and there will be pulling out vineyards if this goes on much longer.

This is predicted to last anywhere between 1-3 more years.

Alder wrote:
01.29.06 at 1:52 PM

Terry,

You're absolutely right that these folks' traditional ways of making a living are falling apart around them, but their activities (those which harm other people or threaten to) cannot be condoned. As Iris points out, luckily it is just a few who are making a bad name for everyone. I'm not sure if anyone in particular is to blame for this situation, but I have to say that the government and trade bodies who could actually pass legislation to fix some of the problems which exist smell pretty bad to me.

It's a shame to see winemakers and winegrowers at each other's throats -- literally or figuratively through a war of words.

Anonymous wrote:
02.06.06 at 8:39 PM

Funny thing about you americans - you guys love to write about the demise of the French Wine industry - and the French love to write about the demise of the American military.

Both the US military and the Frnech wine industry are number one. Both have some problems, but nothing some inspired leadership could not solve.

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