Cognac makers fume as sales slump

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IT LOOKS set to be a good harvest when the cognac grapes are gathered next week. But it will be a bitter harvest, too.

Both quality and yield are expected to be excellent - more is the pity. Instead of rejoicing, wine-growers have taken to the streets. Half the harvest of the white grapes which make the world's most celebrated brandy will, in effect, be thrown away: converted into industrial alcohol or made into table wine.

Cognac, the "drink of the angels", has fallen from grace. An abrupt slump of sales in recessionary Japan and Russia has sharpened a local crisis that has long been distilling.

Production of the cognac grapes has boomed in the past 15 years with improved techniques, artificial fertilisers and mechanical harvesting. Sales of cognac have fallen. Changing (and healthier) habits around the world - even in France - have devastated the market for after-dinner digestive drinks. The result is a cognac lake. The cellars of Cognac and surrounding towns and villages are stuffed with enough spare stocks to meet world demand for seven years.

For most of last week, Cognac was under siege. Tractors and trailers barricaded all entrances to the town for four days. Tyres and barrels of eau-de-vie, the raw material for cognac, burned in the roads. Only pedestrians, doctors, policemen and the occasional journalist were allowed to enter or leave one of the best-known small towns in France.

At a typical barricade on the Angouleme-to-Cognac road on Thursday morning, 30-odd wine-growers in Barbours, anoraks and baseball caps (not a beret in sight) were turning back uncomplaining motorists. With the protesters stood a smiling gendarme, his uniform unbuttoned, as if to say: "I am on your side."

A messenger arrived from the battle-front. The negotiations with the government for emergency subsidies were deadlocked, he reported; the prefect had threatened to send in the CRS (the unsmiling riot police) if the siege of Cognac was not lifted. But, the messenger announced proudly: "We are not moving until we get what we need. If we lose this time, we are finished. This time, my friends, our lives are at stake."

But by Thursday evening, the barriers had gone. There was no deal with the government, only the promise of more talks later this month. The wine-growers had decided to go away and pick their grapes, whether or not anyone wanted them.

An everyday story of French rural folk? Yes, but not usually in this part of France. Cognac producers were once part of an agricultural aristocracy, also covering Champagne and parts of Burgundy and Bordeaux. They could afford to ignore the monthly insurrections elsewhere in the French countryside. No more.

The growers blame their misfortunes partly on the big cognac houses, Hennessy, Martell, Courvoisier and Bisquit, which control 75 per cent of the market. During the 1990s all have been taken over by multi-national drinks companies. The growers claim that the new bosses - LVMH, Seagram, Allied-Domecq - are chiefly interested in marketing whiskies, rums and gins, which sell for about the same in the shops but are up to 20 times cheaper to produce. Even France now consumes 10 times more whisky than brandy.

"They just want us as a calling card, as a prestigious name. They don't want to sell cognac if it competes with Scotch or gin," said Christian Boutriller, 43, a small cognac producer under contract to Courvoisier and one of the 3,000 growers blocking the roads this week.

Nonsense, say the big cognac houses. A determined campaign is being waged around the world to turn cognac into a "long drink", attractive to the young, by mixing it with tonic, lemonade, fruit juice, even (in what purists consider the ultimate sacrilege) Coca-Cola. Some ground was regained, especially among young people in France and the US, before the Asian and Russian slump deflated sales this year.

The dispute connects powerfully and easily with French preoccupations about the late 20th century - the soulless, world market versus traditional products and ordinary people. In truth, cognac - 95 per cent exported - has always been an international business. The British, Irish and Dutch created the industry in the 17th century: the original Mr Hine was from Dorset, the first Mr Martell from the Channel Islands, and Mr Hennessy from Dublin.

Cognac is made by double-distilling - in simple terms, boiling twice - barely fermented white wine. The chalky soil of the valley of the River Charente, similar to the terrain in Champagne, gives cognac its incomparable taste. Hugh Johnson in his seminal work, The World Atlas of Wine, says: "There is an uncanny fresh-grape sweetness about good cognac, as though the soul of the vine had been etherealised and condensed."

The producer price offered for this paragon of brandies has fallen by 30 per cent in five years. An attempt by the big cognac houses to impose further cuts of 15 to 20 per cent - although hastily abandoned - helped to bring the growers on to the roads this week.

The producers now want increased subsidies for taking their surplus raw brandy or undistilled wine off the market. They also want a temporary reduction in their social security payments. The government has offered some concessions but balked at the full list.

"Of course, none of this is a real solution," said Eric Gauche, 42, a bespectacled, bookish cognac producer in charge of a large barricade near Hiersac. "We accept that we must reduce our production and move into other kinds of table wine. But all our savings have gone. We have nothing to invest in planting new vines. We need help or this region, from being one of the richest in France, will become one of the poorest."

The more thoughtful, and the older, producers admit that Cognac has brought part of the plague on itself. The larger growers, especially, would not listen to warnings when they speculatively boosted production through the late 1980s and early 1990s.

What is the future for cognac? I asked a retired grower, manning a barricade on the bridge over the river Charente, beside the huge, ornate Courvoisier distillery in Jarnac. Josephe Jarry, 68, shook his head sadly. "I sometimes fear that we will be destroyed by our own riches," he said. "This area has a special aptitude for creating a wonderful product but it is a very expensive product and a product the world does not seem to want any more. The world made this area rich but now, it seems, the world can live without cognac."