France's largest union of wine producers, an alliance of 6,700 Bordeaux vignerons, is trying to get the government's attention by imposing price controls on its members' own wines. In a vote today, the Syndicat Viticole des AOC Bordeaux et Bordeaux Supérieur passed a motion to deny Appellation d'Origine Côntrolée classification to any wine selling for less than an agreed-upon minimum price. In essence, the producers are daring négociants to either pay more or boycott the wines altogether.
The measure effectively creates price controls, something the European Union expressly forbids. Syndicat leaders recognize the conflict, but insist that the controls are the only way to force the French government to do something to ease the economic crisis enveloping Bordeaux.
Syndicat members claim that négociants are currently paying as little as 700 euros for a tonneau (a large barrel containing the equivalent of 100 cases) of basic Bordeaux. That means many vignerons producing these inexpensive wines are selling them below cost. "We cannot continue to make good wines and sell them for so little," said André du la Bretesche, the organization's director.
The Syndicat submits certificates every year to the Institut National des Appellations d'Origine approving certain wines as AOC Bordeaux. More than 85 percent of Syndicat members voted to deny certificates to any wines priced at less than 1,000 euros per tonneau. Wines selling for less would have to be labeled as simple vin de table, which négociants would find impossible to sell at a decent price. If the négociants did choose to pay the higher prices, the cost of basic Bordeaux to consumers would increase, further hurting sales; but few expect the situation to go that far. The vignerons hope their vote will be a wake-up call, although du la Bretesche admits that French president Jacques Chirac's administration may simply swat down the Syndicat's decision.
Like most of France's wine regions, Bordeaux has been suffering an economic crisis for more than four years. The French used to consume two-thirds of Bordeaux's production, but that has declined dramatically due to changing tastes and a crackdown on drunk driving. The French health ministry is even debating putting labels on all wines warning that consumption of any alcohol is a health risk. Overseas, affordable French wines are facing stiff competition from cheaper, more consistent wines from Australia and Chile.
But the Bordelais can't seem to agree on a solution. Classified-growth estates aren't having trouble selling their wines, so they're largely ignoring the problem. Many négociants believe that they cannot raise prices until wine quality and consistency improve, and that everyone in Bordeaux needs to do a better job marketing the wines overseas.
"There is room for price increases, but the wine has to be top quality for the value," said François Thienpont, a négociant who produces basic Bordeaux under the Terra Burdigala label. Thienpont said he pays his growers twice the average price in the region, but only because they have increased quality.
The Conseil Interprofessionel des Vins de Bordeaux, which represents both vignerons and négociants, implemented a plan earlier this year to improve quality, decrease yields, pull out excess vineyards and increase marketing in the United States. It wants to take further steps but is meeting resistance. "Only the balance between supply and demand can establish market price," said CIVB president Christian Delpeuch in a statement. "That is why the CIVB proposed a number of measures to reduce the oversupply. As of yet, only some have been accepted and implemented."
Some Bordelais fear that individual growers may resort to violence if the economic troubles continue, as they have in southern France. On Nov. 29, winemakers in Languedoc destroyed 26,000 gallons of wine and ransacked a government office, in an attack that may have been the work of the Comité Régional d'Action Viticole, which has been involved in several other destructive protests this year. If the Bordeaux industry can't work together, French wine could be in a lot more trouble.
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