Grapes of wrath

Angered by falling sales and government indifference, French wine growers are turning to terror tactics - smashing up shops and setting trains on fire. In the South of France, Florence Dahl visits the battlegrounds of the country's escalating wine war
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online

It's not just the mock coffin being carried at the front of the demonstration that gives Nîmes a funereal air beneath the late-May afternoon sun. Fearing attacks by the notorious crack commando units among the protestors, all the city-centre shops and cafés have pulled down their shutters. "Here lies the last wine grower," says the writing on the pallbearers' brown box. Two demonstrators with mallets bang an intimidatingly irregular beat on empty oil-drums. Another man makes an earsplitting noise with two fog horns mounted on his hard hat. The rest - about 8,000 French wine growers, almost all of them men - walk in controlled silence around the outside of the city's Roman coliseum and up Boulevard Victor Hugo. There are few banners and no chants. The riot police keep a safe distance. Beneath the surface is seething rage waiting to explode. The march is like the angry burial procession for a murdered child.

It's not just the mock coffin being carried at the front of the demonstration that gives Nîmes a funereal air beneath the late-May afternoon sun. Fearing attacks by the notorious crack commando units among the protestors, all the city-centre shops and cafés have pulled down their shutters. "Here lies the last wine grower," says the writing on the pallbearers' brown box. Two demonstrators with mallets bang an intimidatingly irregular beat on empty oil-drums. Another man makes an earsplitting noise with two fog horns mounted on his hard hat. The rest - about 8,000 French wine growers, almost all of them men - walk in controlled silence around the outside of the city's Roman coliseum and up Boulevard Victor Hugo. There are few banners and no chants. The riot police keep a safe distance. Beneath the surface is seething rage waiting to explode. The march is like the angry burial procession for a murdered child.

At Place de la Maison Carrée, the spokesman for the Languedoc-Roussillon wine growers, Philippe Vergnes, has a menacing message for the agriculture minister, Dominique Bussereau: "After Montpellier in March and Narbonne in April, this is our last demonstration in the south of France. You have been deaf to our concerns. France's wine growers are dying.

"We are not terrorists, or drug dealers," he continues, shouting into his microphone to loud cheers from the assembled crowd. "We are artisans, Mr Minister, and we are being bled to death in an economic genocide. Bussereau, au boulot [get to work]!'

The slow death of the French wine industry, oversized after years of protection from Brussels and uncompetitive in the modern age of "value-for-money" wines from the New World, is currently being played out live in the south of the country. The aggrieved producers are not the prestige houses of Bordeaux or the Loire Valley (though they, too, have their problems), but small-scale growers of low- and medium-grade wines. They come from the Côte du Rhône, Languedoc-Roussillon, the Vaucluse (near Avignon), and parts of Bordeaux. In the 1980s and 1990s, they or their parents invested millions of Francs to upgrade their old "plonk" single-variety vines so as to achieve Appellation d'Origine Contrôllée status. Now, their levels production are far too high and many say * that they are still sitting with 80 per cent of the 2004 harvest unsold.

"Last year I sold my wine for €1.25 [84p] a litre. Now, even at 75 cents [51p] I cannot find a buyer," says 28-year-old Xavier Fabre from the Vaucluse region. "I took over from my father in 2003. Below €1 a litre I make a loss. Not to mention ever-increasing social charges and soaring diesel prices."

Côte du Rhône grower Robert Canet, 62, cannot see a way out. "The government is not interested. We have lost our battle. At this rate, 10 per cent of us will go bankrupt this year. Maybe we did plant too many vines, causing overproduction. But we planted because we were advised to. Now the government experts are telling us we should all build gîtes! Tourism makes money for about two months of the year. Do they think we are stupid? The only money that has value is money that comes from the soil."

His neighbour and co-marcher, Claude Maurizot, 63, blames France's high employment charges. "In 1979, a bottle of Côte du Rhône sold for 4.50F and an hour's labour cost 3.50F. Today, a bottle costs €3 [£2] and if we employ people legally it costs us €12 [£8] an hour. Where is the profit?'

Jean-Bernard Fuster, who is from Portel des Corbières in France's biggest wine-producing region, Languedoc-Roussillon, feels that the government has conspired against the industry. "With their drink-driving campaign they have given French people the idea that wine is alcohol. We do not see it that way. To have 3 per cent alcohol in your blood you need to drink about five litres of wine. No nightclubber does that."

Jean-Jacques Castellar, who farms 22 hectares in the same Rocbère co-operative as Fuster, says he and the majority of his colleagues are deep in debt. "I have a standing overdraft of €20,000 [£13,500]. If you take the 800 members of our co-operative, not one does not owe money either to the nursery, to the chemicals supplier, to the bank or to a relative."

Just a few hours after the march on 25 May, the demonstrators' protests predictably escalate into acts of vandalism on the outskirts of Nîmes and throughout southern France. The crack squad from the Comité Régional d'Action Viticole (Crav) don their balaclavas and attack a wine dealer's cisterns, pouring 10,000 litres of suspected Chilean wine on to a road. Then they move on to three hypermarkets near Béziers and smash them up with metals bars. Two men are arrested. Elsewhere, wine growers block motorway tolbooths, burn railway carriages on a siding and cause €2m (£1.35m) of damage to 140km of TGV high-speed train line. The SNCF rail company claims that, as a result, around 6,000 passengers travelling between Nîmes and Narbonne experience delays.

The next day, 55-year-old Fuster and his wife, Christine, lay on an outing to idyllic Portel-des-Corbières, south of Narbonne, to demonstrate why they are prepared to fight to preserve their livelihood even though their sweat and toil produces a drink scarcely more valuable than Coca-Cola. Their two-storey sand-coloured home with dark-brown shutters is set in a dip in the undulating Languedoc landscape. Their rows of pale-leaf vines contrast with the beige, chalky soil and roll down in a gentle, wave-like formation towards the verandah.

The couple are both natives of neighbouring villages in the area and descendants of "at least three" generations of viticulteurs. Christine, 53, fell in love with Jean-Bernard during in his rugby playing days. She was 14 and he was 16. More than 20 years later, their hands still instinctively reach for each other as they walk side-by-side around their 22 hectares.

"This is not a proud wine area like Bordeaux," says Jean-Bernard, 55. "When we were young, wine growing was not a job parents wanted their children to do. They used to tell us in Occitan 'trabailler a lescola an iras a la vigno', which * means 'work at school or you will end up in the vineyard'. They wanted us to have proper jobs so I trained to be a tool-maker and Christine became a laboratory technician. We spent 14 years in Grenoble but in 1986 we decided to sell up, amalgamate our parents' land and come back to our roots."

"Jean-Bernard built this house with his bare hands," Christine chips in proudly. "Even down to the shutters on the windows."

However, neither of them sees wine-growing as a future for their own two children - gym teacher David, 31, and Carole, 29, who has two daughters and is married to a railway worker. "Growing wine is so unstable and demotivating. We are continuing in the profession because we love what we do, not because we love money, but we are earning the same amount as in 1985," says Christine as she unfolds a large ledger filled with her own neat pencil writing. "Look at our income from wine sales: €82,010 [£55,426] in 2001 falling to €46,208 [£31,230] in 2004. The figures speak for themselves.'"

We move on to the favourite picnic spot of the men and women of Rocbère co-operative - an oasis of olive-tree shade in the middle of a vineyard, next to an 11th-century ruined church. Castellar and Vergnes apologise for their lateness, as they have been tied up in Bézier trying to secure the release from custody of the two wine-growers arrested after the demonstration.

Vergnes says that the wine growers want the French government to freeze their members' property taxes for a year, reduce their social charges and pay for the "crisis distillation" - into industrial alcohol - of 2.5m hectolitres of wine. Crisis distillation is a European Union answer to the wine lake problem. Every year since the mid-1980s, millions of hectolitres of European wine have been turned into alcohol or vinegar.

"The government has made two offers and both are insufficient. They do not want to distil more than 1.5m hectolitres," says Vergnes, who is secretive about the next stage in the wine-growers' protest but rules out demonstrating in Paris. "We would need the support of the agriculture unions but they have only their own interests at heart." Direct action seem higher on his agenda.

Jean-Bernard seems uncomfortable about the militant approach but adds that the options are running out. "I looked at asparagus because it was something my father did. But financially it did not add up. Tomatoes were another possibility but when I realised that the kilo price was €1.10 [74p] and that Turkish tomatoes were selling, wholesale, for 15 cents [10p] a kilo, they ceased to be an option.'

As bottles of wine are deployed on the table, sausage sliced up and great chunks of bread handed out, Christine tries to see the bright side. "This is such a magical place and what we do is a lifestyle choice," she says. "We are just going to have to soldier on with little efforts here and there to win new markets."

Among the initiatives is Terra-Vinea, a tourist attraction 80 metres below ground, created by the Portel-des-Corbières co-operative in a disused gypsum mine. The wine-growers mature their wines in the former quarry and, in chambers between the casks, they have set up exhibits. As part of her efforts to maintain a living wine culture in the region, Christine has also helped create a mini-vineyard at the local primary school. "The challenges of our times require us to be proactive," she says.

But ask the wine growers what they see as the real solution to the French wine glut and they have more questions than answers. "Do we start labelling wines according to grape variety, as they do in Australia, rather than according to provenance?" asks Castellar. "Maybe if we got together in bigger vinification co-operatives to reduce overheads?" offers Jean-Bernard.

"We have to fight on many fronts," says Vergnes. "Our AOC requirements are much stricter than those of the Bordeaux region. They, for instance are allowed to use sugar beat to raise the sugar rate; we are not. They are also allowed to put wood chips in their casks to give a false flavour of oak-matured wine. As for the Italian and Spanish producers, their controls are relatively lax compared to ours. They can get away with planting much more, with lower overheads. Here in France it's all rules."

Rocbère's dynamic export manager, 29-year-old Vianney Castan, says he cannot reverse the negative trend but has tried to find foreign markets for the co-operative's annual yield of 100,000 hectolitres of red, white and rosé AOC Corbières. "I started five years ago," he says, "when we were selling about 10,000 bottles by direct export. Now we are up to 1.5 million exports out of the total 3.5m bottles that we * produce. We have got into Sainsbury's at Calais - though not into shops in the UK - and we are listed by Direct Wines. I'm trying for Majestic Wines but, of course, we would really like to be in Asda, Tesco and the others."

He says the British market is "very difficult" because British consumers are open to all wines, whereas drinkers in Belgium and Germany have remained more loyal to France. "I think French wines are seen as unfashionable in the UK now."

France exports about 40 per cent of its total 60m annual hectolitre production and remains the world's leading producer of wine. Even though New World wines from the US, Chile, Argentina, South Africa and Australia have increased their global market share from 3 per cent to 23 per cent in the past 10 years, France remains way up in front. Britain remains the biggest single customer for French wines, with annual purchases of around 3.2m hectolitres.

But it is not just the British market which is a problem. "The French have stopped drinking wine," says Jean-Bertrand. "They drink half as much as 30 years ago. Young people prefer trendy alcohol mixers and beer; they think wine is old hat. The government really needs to do something to change that image. In the old days, many of our wines hovered around 8 per cent and parents happily served their children a glass at the dinner table. Now everything has to be strong which makes it less suitable for 14-year-olds."

The wine-growers' constant complaint that "the government needs to do something" seems repetitive until you realise the very existence of France's quarter of a million employees in the sector has been conditioned by the Common Agriculture Policy for more than 30 years. "The world is changing," says Jean-Bernard. "But that is hardly our fault. We are simple wine producers and we have allowed ourselves to be guided by so-called experts. Those people, sent out by the government, have led us up the wrong path. I do not think we should be expected to have to get out of this mess all by ourselves."

Yet Bussereau, by his apparent inability to find funds for expanded "crisis distillation", has left the Rocbère co-operative with the impression that the government does not care and, in Vergnes's words, "they are resigned to the market contracting and will be happy if they just save the prestigious wines, like Bordeaux". If he is right, Languedoc-Roussillon, the biggest wine-producing region in France, is very much dead - murdered after years on EU life-support.

Comments