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France’s Struggling Wineries

Jessica Antola The village of Magalas

Photo: Jessica Antola

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.

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