Violence as 10,000 winegrowers protest at French overproduction

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The grapes of wrath fermenting in the French wine industry boiled over into a mini-riot on the streets of Narbonne yesterday.

The grapes of wrath fermenting in the French wine industry boiled over into a mini-riot on the streets of Narbonne yesterday.

A group of 50 young wine producers hurled molotov cocktails, cobble stones, bottles and flares at riot police at the end of a turbulent but mostly peaceful demonstration by 10,000 growers from the French deep south.

Joined by a sprinkling of local anarchists, the young wine-growers taunted and confronted the CRS riot police for nearly two hours across two bridges over a canal in the heart of the town.

At one point a launch crewed by Dutch tourists found itself trapped between the two bridges, on which wheely bins had been set aflame.

The CRS bombarded the rioters with tear gas. The Dutch tourists turned their launch and escaped. Finally, the rain came down and both sides dispersed.

The riot was always more theatrical than violent but demonstrates the growing anger of French wine-growers, especially in the south.

The French low- and medium-quality wine industry has been stricken by the collapse of wholesale prices and a glut on the European and world markets. There have been a series of minor terrorist attacks by extremist wine producers in the French south in recent weeks, including dynamite attacks on three government offices and the hijacking and destruction of lorry-loads of wine.

The wine producers of Languedoc and Roussillon on the southern coastal plain, always the most volatile in France, are especially furious because they say that the crisis of overproduction is not of their making.

The southern producers have made big efforts in recent years to grub up vines, reduce production and improve quality and marketing. They now find themselves drowning in a surplus of wine produced by other French regions ­ especially Bordeaux ­ which planted new vineyards in the 1990s when the southern growers were destroying them.

This year, the unsold stocks in France are largely "appellation controlee" (ie supposedly medium quality) wines from the Bordeaux region ­ something unprecedented in the history of French wine .

Jean Roger, 58, president of the wine growers of the Pyrénées Orientales département ­ himself convicted recently of hijacking a lorry-load of wine ­ said: "While we were suffering and destroying our vines and reducing production and improving quality, the Bordeaux growers were planting new vines, thousands of hectares of new vines."

"Now they have run into trouble and they are bleating but it is we, the Roussillon and Languedoc growers, who are suffering most. Just when we should be reaping the benefits of the sacrifices we have made, our prices have collapsed."

The French government this week doubled its offer of emergency aid to wine producers to ¤140m but the southern growers say that, spread thinly throughout France, this will buy no more than "two tractor tyres" for each grower.

They are demanding a one-year moratorium on property taxes and social charges and more aid, concentrated specifically in the south.

The standard image of the smaller Languedoc wine grower is that of an agricultural dinosaur, unwilling to accept that the traditional bulk market for rot-gut red wine ("gros rouge") is dead. In fact, many of the remaining Languedoc growers are younger men who have invested all their reserves of cash in efforts to adapt to the changing market.

Many of the demonstrators yesterday were in their 30s and 40, wearing baseball caps and jeans rather than berets and blue overalls. Half of the southern vineyards have been replanted with "noble" grape varieties ­ from Cabernet-Sauvignon to Chardonnay ­ producing wines that sell well on the global market. Or rather the wines used to sell well.

Jean-Luc, 40, a typical young grower at yesterday's march, was dressed in a suede jacket and jeans. He has recently converted his 20 hectares near Nîmes to Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah grapes.

"That cost me ¤5,000 a hectare," he said. "By rights I should now be getting a good price for my wine, ¤3 or ¤4 a litre. We are lucky to get ¤1 a litre. We have invested in the future and we have been kicked in the teeth."

The EU routinely destroys a billion litres of wine a year by buying it up and turning it into alcohol for use in industry. The French growers have asked for an extra billion litres to be destroyed this year, including 250 million litres from France, mostly Bordeaux "appellation" wines from the low end of the middle market.

The crisis of overproduction in France has been fermenting for years as French wine consumption has slumped. In the past three years, the crisis has deepened as medium-quality French wines have lost world market share to Australian and other "new world" wines.