French lose the taste for cheap peasant wine

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From Fabrice Loussel's small vineyard, there is a spectacular view of the Languedoc hills. In the foreground, his gnarled vines are just beginning to leaf. In the background, hill-top villages stand like old cheeses against the blue, southernmost ridges of the Massif Central.From Fabrice Loussel's small vineyard, there is a spectacular view of the Languedoc hills. In the foreground, his gnarled vines are just beginning to leaf. In the background, hill-top villages stand like old cheeses against the blue, southernmost ridges of the Massif Central.

The scene is worthy of the great names of Burgundy or Bordeaux. In truth, these beautiful hills, part of the biggest wine-growing region in the world, produce ­ and have always produced ­ some of the most appalling wine in France: thick, red, sweet and cheap.

Down at the local wine cooperative, the Vin de Table produced here sells for 50p a litre. If it sells at all. On the wholesale wine market, the going rate for the most basic red plonk ­ the stuff sold in plastic bottles from the bottom shelves of hypermarkets ­ is down to 20p, even 10p, a litre.

By the end of this year, there will be 500 million litres of such low-quality French red wine in store: the equivalent to one year's supply. In other words, the French wine lake, drained in the late 1980s, is threatening once again to burst its banks.

This time there are no funds ­ and little sympathy ­ in either Brussels or Paris for the kind of large investments of public cash in distilling the surplus wine and grubbing up or improving vineyards; action that solved, or shelved, the problem last time.

Put simply the root of the problem is that the old mass market for the cheapest, poorest red wine ­ the gros rouge (coarse red) ­ has collapsed. Thirty years ago, every French man, woman and child drank 120 litres of wine a year; this figure is now about 60 litres and falling. An increasing proportion of French people, especially young people, prefer to drink beer or spirits or fruit juice or mineral water, or less wine of better quality.

Beyond this, there is a sudden glut in low-quality, and even poor-to-middling-quality wine, all over the world. The producers of gros rouge here in the French deep south are being undersold by the Italians and Spanish and by their particular bête noir ­ blended "wine from several EU countries".

The grapes of wrath are already fermenting dangerously. Last week, 5,000 wine producers from Languedoc ­ the source of 70 per cent of all French wine ­ ran riot on the A9 Avignon-Perpignan motorway, smashing toll booths, overturning police cars and injuring policemen. This was the third demonstration in seven months and the most violent. On Tuesday, a delegation of the wine-growers will meet the French Agriculture Minister, Jean Glavany, who is already besieged by foot-and-mouth and BSE problems in northern and western France.

The standard image of the smaller Languedoc wine growers is of agricultural dinosaurs, unwilling to accept that the traditional bulk market for rotgut red is dead. In fact, many of the remaining small Languedoc growers are younger men who have already made efforts to adapt to the changing market.

Fabrice Loussel is 28. He wears jeans and a casual shirt. His hair is shaven fashionably short. He is married with two small children, he plays in the back row of the local third division rugby team. Two years ago, he became the sixth generation of his family to take over the 40 acres of vineyards north of the small town of Pézenas.

"With prices as they are, I am barely making enough money to pay off my loans," he said. "My wife works in the supermarket. Otherwise, we wouldn't survive. But these are my vineyards, my vines, my hills. That is where I work. Who would want to give all that up? This may not be the best wine in the world but it can be made much better and even the supposedly poor stuff has some use. I am prepared to fight because I believe in the future of wine growing in Languedoc." Half of Mr Loussel's vines produce wine for the bulk-red market.

On the better ­ ie worse or stonier ­ soil, he and his neighbours already grow more ambitious wine: appellation controllée Côteaux du Languedoc which sells reasonably well at about £2 a bottle. (We sampled some of this wine with some of Mr Loussel's fellow-growers. It was not bad at all ... Three decades ago, there were 450,000 hectares ­ more than one million acres ­ of vineyards in Languedoc. Most were planted with grape varieties that produced enormous quantities of poor, red wine. Many of these vines, especially on the coastal plain, have now been grubbed up en masse and replaced, by cereals or fruit trees or blocks of holiday flats. Of the remaining 300,000 hectares of Languedoc vineyards, almost half have been replanted with the kind of "noble" varieties ­ from Cabernet-Sauvignon to Chardonnay ­ that make imitation Bordeaux and Burgundy, or imitation New World wines, which sell well on the global market.

Or rather they used to sell well. An international glut has also reduced the producer price of these generic wines, which, five years ago, seemed to promise Languedoc a golden future as "Europe's California".

And that still leaves vast acreages of the older, traditional bulk-market vines, which cannot be replaced overnight or without financial support. To survive, the small Languedoc growers say they need to earn at least 30p a litre from their lowest-grade red. At the moment, they cannot sell it at all.

The growers want massive new French and European subsidies to "distil" ­ ie destroy ­ 300 million litres of the surplus wine. They want new government policies to promote table wine, including a relaxation of the draconian French laws on drink advertising, which, they say, fail to take account of evidence that moderate wine consumption is good for the health.

And if they do not get these things? José Roig, 38, is another of the younger growers who defy the traditional image of the small wine producer. He carries a mobile phone in the back pocket of his jeans; he talks knowledgeably about the international wine market.

He said: "We are a Latin people. We are not passive, like your farmers in Britain. Violence is part of our tradition. Some people say that violence is bad for our image but, without violence, who would listen to us? Nobody."