On a recent trip to some of the top winemaking regions of southern France—Languedoc, Roussillon and the southwestern districts of Madiran and Cahors—I noticed a palpable sense of unease, if not downright fear, among many French vintners.
It wasn't until I was high in the rugged northern reaches of the Languedoc, where hearty Syrah-based blends reign supreme, that I realized that it was more serious than the usual concerns about the weather. I was at Château Ste.-Eulalie in the La Livinière cru of the Minervois appellation. Co-owner Isabelle Coustal makes some of the best reds in the region, but it's been difficult over the years for her to find and hold onto a reliable importer for the U.S. market, a quandary she shares with many an aspiring French vintner.
Coustal is hardworking, dedicated and sincere. We've profiled her as one of the leading members of France's new generation of vintners ("France's New Faces," Sept. 30, 2003). She is a mother of three, and her husband, Laurent, works as a winemaker in Bordeaux, which lies a three-hour drive away, to help pay the mortgage on the property. He comes home for long weekends.
Coustal was moving cases of wine with a forklift when I arrived. She recognized me and was pleased to pour her wines. But first I asked her how things were going. "La crise," she responded simply and directly, almost in a tone of resignation. I was taken aback for a moment, but Coustal's report of crisis was echoed throughout my journey, and I soon realized that her words were reflective of the dire straits that many French vintners face today. A mixture of economic, political and cultural currents is converging to put dark clouds on their horizon.
As I went from winery to winery, the vignerons would most often address their problems themselves by asking me the questions first. During a visit to the famed Madiran estate of Alain Brumont, both the winemakers and the marketers were precise in their queries. What are people drinking in the United States, and are they drinking more? What do Americans think about Australian wines? Are California wines selling well in the United States? How is the American economy doing? The French may be looking more to the outside world at this point because wine on the domestic front is under siege from a variety of sources.
The French government has really cracked down on drinking and driving, as well as speeding. I myself was pulled over in a random check in Cahors (I don't drink and drive and was politely told to continue on my way). The accepted blood alcohol content in France is .05, appreciably lower than the .08 standard in force in the United States. Vintners say there has been a noticeable drop in wine consumption, especially in restaurants; from my own observations, half-bottles shared between two or more people were much more common than full bottles. In addition, young people in France are opting more and more for beer and carbonated beverages over wine, indicating a future of even lower French domestic wine consumption.
French vintners also face arcane government-sanctioned winemaking rules that increasingly hobble them in the highly competitive international wine marketplace. This is nowhere more true than in the highly fragmented south, where winemaking traditions are young and vintners are still exploring which grapes work best in which soils.
On top of all this is the sheer absurdity and poor quality of many of the French vineyards, in the south and elsewhere. There are still too many low-quality grapes that in the best scenarios are distilled into alcohol to rid the market of their existence, and in the worst cases are made into plonk at cooperative wineries. Yet the vines remain planted because of subsidies and market supports, which act as a millstone around the necks of quality-oriented producers. "People cannot continue to produce wines that don't have a market," says Jean-Charles Cazes, who is heading up his family's new venture, L'Ostal Cazes, in the Minervois just down the hill from Coustal. "With great wines coming from Chile, South Africa and Australia, you cannot afford to make mediocre wines."
In March, explosives went off at Languedoc producer Domaine de la Baume in a move that was seen as a protest against the globalization of wine and its effects on local winegrowers (la Baume is owned by France's largest wine export). The Languedoc has always been a rebellious part of France, and protests by the region's winegrowers are steeped in the history of the region. But the tides of history are running against the mediocre wines in France, and elsewhere. I only hope that vintners such as Coustal and other quality producers will be able to survive the turmoil and changes that lie ahead.