Besieged by cheap wines from Chile, South Africa and Australia, winemakers in France's Languedoc region fight back. Some have turned to violence. Others seek to learn how to compete more effectively.
SCOTT SIMON, host:
It used to be said that a nation's taste for good wine is a barometer of its civilization. Of course, they used to say that in France, which until recently was the world's unquestioned leader in wine production. But French winemakers are being challenged by cheaper and quite good exports from Chile, South Africa and especially Australia and New Zealand.
Winemakers in the Mediterranean district of Languedoc, France's largest wine-producing region, have been fighting back quite literally. They have attacked wine trucks, supermarkets, even a government office. And they have threatened more violence if President Nicolas Sarkozy does not come to their aid.
Frank Browning reports.
(Soundbite of music)
FRANK BROWNING: Eighty-seven-year-old Paul Gaudiere(ph) only began playing saxophone when he was 50. Back then, he was president of the wine co-op at Gabian in the upper Languedoc region. The co-op was flying high, producing half a million bottles a year from vineyards that were first tended by the Romans. He was still playing at the annual Feast of St. Jean in June, but things aren't looking so good, either for Gabian or for the vintners surrounding the town.
Mr. JEAN PIERRE ROSSIERE (Retired Marketing Executive; Wine Producer; Gabian, France): We're about 80 wine producers here in Gabian and I can say that maybe eight are living from the wine.
BROWNING: Jean Pierre Rossiere(ph) is a retired marketing executive with a few acres of his own grapes who's lending his business knowledge to the local co-op to help turn it around.
Mr. ROSSIERE (Retired Marketing Executive; Wine Producer; Gabian, France): We need to keep our sons, our grandsons here on the territory. Gabian was very, very well known at the Roman period 2,000 years ago. We need to keep it for the next 2,000 years in front of us.
BROWNING: Some 200 townspeople joined Rossiere at picnic tables, sampling sausages ground from local pigs while old Paul Gaudier played. His son Jacques is now president of the co-op. Rossiere translated.
Mr. JACQUES BRUSSEREAU (President, Wine Co-op, Languedoc): (Through translator) The problem is that we are wine producers, we are wine farmers, and we don't know how to market our product.
BROWNING: That's one point everyone agrees on. But it's not the only issue. A half an hour away, Jean Luc Crenier(ph) and his wife tend about 50 acres of vineyard. And they sell their grapes through another co-op at Valrose.
Mr. JEAN LUC CRENIER (Vineyard Owner): (Through translator) Today, the big problem is globalization. Other countries compete against us, and the law, of course, allows. Australia, Chile, and Argentina, even the U.S. They hire people cheap. Our costs are really heavy. Farming (unintelligible) and regulations forbid chemicals. We can't use because they are not considered ecological. In Italy and Spain, it is not like that.
BROWNING: Crenier is a big burly fellow with a hearty laugh, proud of his Occitan heritage, a descendant in blood and spirit of the people who lived in Languedoc a thousand years before they were conquered by the King of France. That's part of the reason he's finishing a seven-year suspended sentence for leading a group of winemakers into a public office and destroying computers to protest what he felt were the government's meager farm support and marketing policies. Crenier has seen his vineyard income falls steadily for the last decade.
Mr. CRENIER: (Through translator) Forty percent. It dropped 40 percent in the last 10 or 15 years. There has always been a crisis in Languedoc, but before it was French laws we had to follow. Now, it is all in Brussels.
BROWNING: To deal with falling prices and the growing wine glut, European Union officials in Brussels have threatened to cut subsidies across the continent, and instead have proposed to pay winemakers to rip up half a million acres of vines - a policy no winemaker likes, least of all, a shadowy group called CRAV, the Regional Action Committee of Winemakers.
This spring, five CRAV members in hoods and ski masks staged a press briefing for France's TV3 just before midnight in a cave to issue an ultimatum to newly elected President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Unidentified Man: (French spoken)
BROWNING: They gave Sarkozy's government a choice - resist the E.U. demands and provide protection against cheap imported wine or see blood in the streets.
Journalist Chris Mercer is writing a book on the Languedoc wine militants.
Mr. CHRIS MERCER (Journalist, Decision News Media): They've carried out various attacks on, for example, trucks - Spanish wines coming over the border into France, also foreign wine stored in vats, government buildings, and also train lines. A favorite trick is to cut the signals on the train lines here in the south.
BROWNING: It's not the first time winemakers in Languedoc have used violence. Exactly a century ago, tens of thousands of Occitans took to the streets. The government sent troops. The locals blew up the train lines, but the soldiers refused to fire on the people.
One of the largest independent wine producers in Languedoc is the Abbaye de Valmagne, a 12th-century monastery with fountains in the courtyard and a vineyard run by Phillippe d'Allaines. The descendant of a long line of aristocrats says the militants just don't understand the world wine market.
Mr. PHILLIPPE D'ALLAINES (Owner, Abbaye de Valmagne): I don't know how the government could protect anybody. It's impossible. It's the world market.
BROWNING: The real problem, d'Allaines says, is French marketing or the absence of marketing.
Mr. D'ALLAINES: We were used, in France, for example, to say taste my wine and buy it, and this was enough. This was very easy.
BROWNING: He cites the British wine market.
Mr. D'ALLAINES: A French producer puts about 50 cents of euro for marketing the wine in England. Australia would put probably two euro.
BROWNING: Four times as much?
Mr. D'ALLAINES: Yes.
BROWNING: Which is fine for large producers like the Abbaye de Valmagne that also receives 30,000 paying tourists a year. Small producers and village co-ops don't have that kind of visibility or income. Even though they'd be paid well for ripping out their vineyards, Chris Mercer says they want the E.U. to invest in wine marketing.
Mr. MERCER: The problem is for a lot of winemakers in the south of France, they see winemaking as a sort of a way of life. They don't see why they should rip out their vines and even plant something else, just like a generic crop. They really don't see it in such a commercial way.
(Soundbite of working in vineyard)
BROWNING: Back in his own vineyard, militant Jean Luc Crenier offers an ominous laugh as to what will happen if the Sarkozy government goes along with the E.U. proposals.
Mr. CRENIER: (French spoken)
(Soundbite of laughter)
BROWNING: We're hopeful, he says, but if that happens we'll have to consider taking up other actions. Actions, he doesn't care to describe.
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A church (left) in St. Emilion sits near the edge of the Chateau Ausone winery.
A church (left) in St. Emilion sits near the edge of the Chateau Ausone winery.
In 2003, France got a glimpse of what the future may hold. A summer heat wave broke all temperature records, straining the country's medical and energy resources. But a future of warmer summers could bring unexpected pleasures — including wine.
The town of St. Emilion lies in heart of a France's famous Bordeaux wine region. Beside just about every road there are row upon row of exquisitely manicured grapevines. Francois Despagne, the winemaker at Chateau Grand Corbin Despagne, explains that it is impossible to produce good wine without good grapes. And he should know. Despagne's family has been living in this part of the Bordeaux wine region since the 16th century. Today, he has 200,000 plants on 53 different plots.
If you follow strict rules about how you grow your grapes — where you grow them, and what type you grow — you can qualify for the St. Emilion appellation. The better vineyards qualify for St. Emilion Grand Cru, and the best are Premier St. Emilion Grand Cru Classe.
Despagne says that French wines are so special because French winemakers pay almost religious attention to something the French call terroir.
"Terroir is weather and the soil," he explains. "Many people say it is the soil. No. It is the combination of the weather and the soil."
The soil in Bordeaux is a mix of gravelly dirt and clay, perfect for grapevine growth. The weather is good, too. There's not too much rain, and enough summer sun for the grapes to mature. But the weather varies considerably from year to year, and this affects the vintage.
Despagne says he had good vintages in 1988, 1989 and 1990, but each year was very different. "It is like three children," he says. "They are your children, but they are not the same."
Profiting from Warmer Summers
Something else is happening in addition to the annual variation. Harvests have been coming earlier — and grapes have had more sugar — because on average summers have been getting warmer. At least in the short run this is a good thing for Bordeaux, because a warm, dry August is a good thing for wine.
These changes are welcomed at Chateau Ausone, a premier Grand Cru Classe winery. The Ausone vineyards are just outside the walls of the medieval city, below the Romanesque church. They're on a southeast facing hill, so the grapes are bathed in the warm morning sun. The 2005 vintage hasn't appeared in stores yet, but if you want to buy the rights to a bottle when it does come out, it will set you back nearly $1,800. That's for one bottle.
And global warming could send the prices even higher, according to Alain Vauthier, the owner of Chateau Ausone. "I very sincerely think that right now global warming is very favorable," he says. "We're getting more and more great vintages. We have very sweet grapes like those that we want for great years such as '47, '61, '82." And he doesn't seem concerned about the climate getting too hot.
"In 30 or 50 years, I don't know what the climate will be," Vauthier says, "But we'll see. Actually, I won't see, because I'm too old."
Growing Practices Change
Most winemakers won't be getting thousands of dollars for their 2005 vintages. Francois Despagne's 2005 wine will cost about $30 a bottle. And he's not so sure that global warming will be good for St. Emilion. But Despagne says the wines of Bordeaux have changed over the years — sometimes because of disease, sometimes because people's tastes have changed.
He says that if the climate changes by one or two degrees over the next 10 or 20 years, the wine he makes will change a little. "Perhaps it is possible to say it is a more Mediterranean wine," he says. But he thinks Bordeaux can adapt. As he speaks, Despagne's hands clasp together and his eyes dart upwards — as if checking with a higher authority about his predictions both for this year — and for the future.
Even without divine intervention, there are growing techniques that could be modified to account for the warmer temperatures. Right now, for example, it's common to remove leaves from the grapevines so the fruit gets more exposure to the sun. Perhaps in future the leaves will stay on longer.
And maybe it won't be necessary to remove as many grapes from the plants. Stephane Aplebaum is the vigneron, or winemaker, at Chateuau Quercy. He shows how many bunches of grapes are growing on a vine. Like most vignerons, Apelbaum refers to the grapes as berries.
"If you let all 25 bunches of berries stay on the vine until harvest ... the results is blah, tedious fruit," he says.
That's because there's not enough sun and water for that many grapes to reach a magnificent ripeness. So while the grapes are still green, most are sacrificed. Maybe with global warming it will be possible to keep more of the berries and make more wine.
Apelbaum says dealing with a changing climate is part of being a winemaker. "When I taste my wines and old vintages, amazingly I remember the weather," he says. "I remember the stress, I remember maybe some fights I had with people who were working for me and things like that. Everything is told into the bottle of the wine."
Some people have suggested that global warming will prompt people to head north, to start making wines where temperatures will be more like those Bordeaux used to experience. Apelbaum says that won't happen, because people are connected to their land.
"Maybe we'll have to change," he concedes. He thinks they might have to plant the Syrah grapes — a variety that is forbidden today by the strict wine classification rules of the region.
"But for the moment people don't seem to worry so much about it," he says. "They just adapt themselves."
And probably there will always be a market for wines produced with such devotion.