On a startlingly hot summer day, François Teisserenc navigates a Fiat Punto down a one-lane dirt road, bumping over rocks as we pass row after row of perfectly trestled vines. "Here! Stop here!" he says, already opening the door and jumping out, 31 years old and exuberant in his earth-encrusted black T-shirt and hiking boots. He squints into the sun, standing proudly before what, at first, appears to be a uniform plot of rolling land, the end of each line of vines marked by a small rosebush. In the distance, the medieval spires of châteaux peek over the horizon. Just above these grapes rises a sign, a tiny barrel marked domaine de l’arjolle: zinfandel. "This," he says proudly, "is the only hectare of Zinfandel in all of France. My father lobbied Paris for six years to plant it."
François’s father—Louis-Marie Teisserenc—is president of the wine syndicate Côtes de Thongue, a collection of some 60 vignerons (winegrowers and cave cooperatives) radiating in a dial around the skinny Thongue river, deep in the heart of France’s Languedoc-Roussillon. The region, which stretches from the Black Mountains to the Mediterranean, represents some of the country’s most productive grape-growing soils—that mythical French terroir. The Romans were the first to plant grapes here, but it was the Industrial Revolution that made this area boom. For generations, Languedoc produced huge quantities of wine for workers: bulk table wine, drunk by the pitcher in a country where, until the 1970’s, the average person consumed some 100 liters of wine a year. But wine consumption—even in France—has dropped by half over the past three decades. And with inexpensive wines from South America, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States flooding world markets, competition has changed.
Crisis is the word whispered by everyone here who is connected to wine, and pretty much everyone in the region has his or her hands in the industry. The French share of the global wine market has fallen by one-third in the last 20 years. But that number is misleading—the Grand Cru wines, the top Bordeaux and the Burgundies, are doing fine. It is the small growers and the family vineyards churning out basic table wines that are in trouble. In response, Côtes de Thongue winemakers are gambling that New World techniques that produce creative, easy-to-drink wines will reverse two decades of economic slide. Planting a California cépage, or wine variety, would once have been unheard-of in France— but then again, so would sending a son to New Zealand to learn about wines, and that’s just what Louis-Marie did a few years ago. "Our only standard is diversity," the elder Teisserenc says, knowing that using a word like diversity is revolutionary in a country where continuity and tradition have long been valued over innovation.
Like many on this sunbaked strip of France, Bruno Granier, of La Font de l’Olivier, in Magalas, a medieval village a short drive (but a world away) from the Teisserenc optimism, makes two kinds of wines: bulk, low-grade wine, which he sells to wholesalers, and sophisticated, high-end wines, including a Grenache Blanc and several Carignans. Granier needs the bulk sales to shoulder his costs, but on this sweltering July day, his year-old harvest stands untouched and ominous, straining vats two stories high. Wholesalers, determined to compete with the lower-priced wines from the southern hemisphere, are shaving costs and, he says, depriving him of his livelihood. "They offered me 30 euros per hectoliter," says Granier, whose deep tan reflects months spent among the vines, "when even 35 euros would mean no profit." Ultimately, he can’t compete with the lower production costs of winemakers in other countries.
It makes sense, then, that just beneath its bucolic calm Languedoc harbors a simmering antiglobalization sentiment. But here, instead of teens in anarchy masks, there are bombings at the Ministry of Agriculture, attacks on wine trucks bearing lower-cost wines from Spain and Italy, highway protests that shut down the main road between Montpellier and Béziers. Last year, off the nearby coast of Sète, a shadowy group called CRAV (Comité Régional d’Action Viticole, or Regional Union of Viticultural Action) attacked the storehouses of a wholesaler and tankers holding vats of Italian wine. "For 30 years we used this as a way to regulate the market," says Jose Roig, a craggy-faced grower who works with the massive cave cooperative L’Occitanne, as he sucks on his tenth cigarillo of the hour. Roig’s face is as worn as his crowded, smoke-filled apartment—which contrasts markedly with the plantation-style estates of successful growers. "Hundred hectoliters [spilled] in Narbonne. Hundred hectoliters in Carcassonne. Hundred hectoliters in Béziers. And then the wholesalers would negotiate," Roig chuckles. "It once worked, but no longer." In this lush landscape, punctuated by circular medieval hamlets and centuries-old cathedrals, and subject to the rhythms of the harvest, growers face a choice: evolution or extinction.