France’s Struggling Wineries
Published: May 2009
By Sarah Wildman
Far from the klieg-lit wineries of Bordeaux and Burgundy, the growers of France’s sleepy Languedoc-Roussillon were caught by surprise when the New World came knocking. Sarah Wildman looks at an industry struggling to balance tradition and innovation.
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.
Many of the growers participating in the Côtes de Thongue experiment believe that salvation lies in a move toward the tastes and—most important—marketing of the very thing that is threatening their trade: the New World. The Côtes de Thongue label—free of the rigidity of the French appellation d’origine contrôllée (AOC) system—affords them flexibility, for example, to plant a Californian or Spanish grape and mix different varietals together for globally popular, cleaner tastes. It also makes the Côtes de Thongue growers the beneficiaries of the same global market that has so burned this region: 80 percent of their wines are sold outside of the country. That outward focus has made this region fertile ground for newcomers to the industry and to France.
The drive up to Domaine Sainte Rose, a wine estate outside the village of Servian, resembles the credits shot of a Merchant Ivory film: an impressive iron gate opens onto a stately driveway that terminates at an early-16th-century château nestled against a backdrop of carefully tended vines. Domaine Sainte Rose is the home of Charles and Ruth Simpson, a British couple who abandoned careers in pharmaceuticals (he) and humanitarian work (she) in 2002 to pursue wine making.
For the expat Simpsons, village life is as romantic as the grounds of their nearly 400-year-old manor. Their two young daughters go to school down the road, and during harvest their children and their employees’ kids sleep bundled together up at the château on the long grape-picking nights. But the Simpsons aren’t here for romance. They are a new breed in Languedoc: business people, immersed in the culture, but bringing a distinctive background in marketing. "You have to be extraordinarily proactive," Charles says, pointedly critiquing French growers unused to thinking about business and publicity. The Simpsons joined the Côtes de Thongue syndicate in their second year and now produce a fresh, light, unoaked white they call Sirocco Chardonnay and an oaked Cabernet Sauvignon–Syrah, "because we drink this style," Ruth explains. The Cabernet-Syrah, a blend of northern and southern French grapes, is the kind of mix the "French raise their eyebrows at," she acknowledges.
Sainte Rose has been well received, especially back in the United Kingdom, where the Simpsons have set up an import business exclusively for their label. But their lack of previous viticultural experience is a turnoff for the French, who like to see hands dirtied and lineage linked to the land. The Simpsons’ approach is decidedly more profit-oriented. "If we can’t survive in this free market then we don’t deserve to be here," Charles says. "If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. We will have to go home." Easy enough when home is another country. But for those already home—where do they go?
Back in magalas, just down the road from Bruno Granier’s desperate operation, is the shiny new Domaine Magellan, run by Bruno Lafon and his sister-in-law Sylvie Legros. Lafon comes from generations of winemakers, but he, too, is a transplant, an internal migrant from Burgundy. He looked to Languedoc for a fresh start and was drawn to the Côtes de Thongue for its malleability and rising stature. "Twenty or thirty years ago, people only knew Bordeaux and Burgundy and no other wine," Lafon says. "The New World wines are not [necessarily] better but they are very easy to understand." Lafon is determined to make an understandable wine—like the Simpsons, he is as focused on marketing and presentation as he is on taste. His Le Fruit Défendu wines, packaged with a sly 1920’s-style label, uses the long-maligned Cinsault grape (défendu: at once forbidden and defended), which is slowly recouping its image. Lafon’s other wines are labeled Vieilles Vignes. The vines, like French wine, are rooted in tradition, but the blends are oriented toward today’s palates.
Lafon drives me up into his fields, along a narrow rutted road that crests on a hill. At the top, he proudly shows off an impressive 360-degree view of the 11th-century village of Magalas on one side, the Mediterranean town of Agde in the distance, and the mountains behind us. I admire the history of the area he has adopted and comment on the iconic images of the French land: the village winegrowers, the ancient terra-cotta structures, and the equally ancient farming traditions. But as Lafon scans the horizon, he finds something entirely different. "The terroir is our strength, but I see the south of France as the new New World." He squats down to sift the rocky sandstone soil between his fingers. "Generations cared for this land. They cared for it well." He straightens. "My generation," he says, brushing off his hands, "we are more creative."
Sarah Wildman is a senior correspondent for the American Prospect and a regular contributor to the New York Times. She is based in Madrid.
Getting there and around
From Paris, take a plane or train (scheduled daily) to Béziers, one of the region’s larger cities. The area is best explored by rental car; taxi service can be expensive and unreliable.
Where to stay
Great Value: Château de Murviel Crisp, clean rooms, with views of the medieval town. 1 ?Place Georges Clémenceau, Murviel-lès-Béziers; 33-4/67-32-35-45; chateau-de-murviel.com; doubles from $102.
Great Value: Le Couvent A five-room inn with Modern art and an enormous collection of books, housed in a 17th-century convent. 6 Ave. de l’Église, Roujan; 33-4/ 67-24-64-37; roujan.com; doubles from $110.
Great Value: Hôtel de Vigniamont In the heart of Pézenas, steps from the town’s lively markets. 5 Rue Massillon; 33-4/67-35-14-88; hoteldevigniamont.com; doubles from $136.
Where to Eat
Le Pain d’Elices Classic Mediterranean tapas, in a historic town. 23 Rue de la Foire; Pézenas; 33-4/67-09-94-56; dinner for two from $54.
Ô. Bontemps Once a butcher shop, now it has more than meat on its menu. Place de l’Église, Magalas; 33-4/67-36-20-82; dinner for two $65.
Most estates are open to the public by appointment only. Call ahead to arrange a visit.
>Domaine de l’Arjolle Open for public tours; also hosts multicourse wine-pairing dinners twice a year—book early. 7 Rue Fournier, Pouzolles; 33-4/67-24-81-18; arjolle.com; dinner for two $164.
Domaine Bourdic Produces an excellent collection of Côtes de Thongue wines; every July, the Swiss owners hold a classical music festival onsite. Alignan du-Vent; 33-4/67-24-98-08; domainebourdic.com.
Domaine la Croix-Belle Puissalicon; 33-4/67-36-27-23; croix-belle.com.
La Font de l’Olivier Chemin du Pendut, Magalas; 33-4/67-36-11-70.
Domaine Magellan 467 Ave. de la Gare, Magalas; 33-4/67-36-20-83.
Domaine Sainte Rose Domaine de Sainte Rose, Servian; 33-4/67-39-07-54; sainterose.com.