Bordeaux's struggling farmers are unimpressed with government proposals to help them with a crisis that is threatening their way of life. France's agricultural minister has a plan to get rid of excess wine stocks across the nation, but without bigger changes, farmers will continue to face financial ruin.
The source of the crisis is a Bordeaux built for a prior era. In the years after World War II, the average French adult drank 150 liters of wine per year, mainly red table wine—that's nearly 17 cases per person annually or half a bottle per day. Today they consume 40 liters, or four and a half cases per year. Over the last five years, Bordeaux's average annual crop has been about 480 million cases, but they've only been selling 440 million. Every year, a surplus of wine is building up and growers are sinking further into debt.
After delays and several protests by grapegrowers, French agricultural minister Marc Fesneau met with representatives of the Bordeaux wine trade recently. The meeting has been long awaited by the frustrated vignerons, but in the end delivered little.
Fesneau offered only one concrete concession—€160 million in funding for the distillation of unwanted wine into industrial alcohol. That sum would go to all French winegrowers with surplus wine, not just the Bordelais.
The French government has turned to emergency distillation before—most recently in 2020 during the pandemic, when demand collapsed and stocks accumulated—but no one believes the plan solves the larger problem.
"This measure will help us in the very short term to empty the cellars but will not allow us in the long term to rebalance supply and demand," said Stephane Gabard, president of the AOC Bordeaux and Bordeaux Superieur syndicat. "We must also reduce our production potential. Without uprooting, if the 2023 harvest is normal, we would reproduce this same imbalance. The 2020 distillation had cleaned up our excess stocks, but they were replenished in 2 years, despite small harvests."
The CIVB has called for a one time payment to growers of €10,000 per hectare to cover the costs of grubbing up the excess vines. The organization estimates that 10,000 hectares need to be ripped up to eliminate excess production. The total cost of the operation would be €100 million, less than the €160 million offered by the state to distill the unwanted wine. The CIVB believes subsidizing vine removal could solve the entire problem within 18 months. The CIVB would contribute to the fund as well.
However, EU regulations do not allow for member states to subsidize removing farmland from production. "There are two solutions: either we manage to change the regulations quickly enough or we find another way," said Jean-Samuel Eynard, vigneron and president of the Gironde branch of the FDSEA, a farmers' union.
Growers on the lower rungs of Bordeaux are becoming increasingly desperate for a solution. The Gironde Chamber of Agriculture released figures revealing that 1,320 vignerons are in serious financial difficulty. More than a quarter of them want to grub up at least some of their vines. More than a third are operating at a loss.
With a nationwide agricultural fair coming later this month, Fesneau is expected to make an announcement with more ideas. One thought is that the government will ease the repayment of loans with more flexible terms. But the vintners remain focused on grubbing up unwanted vines. They hope Fesneau will announce a regulatory change that will allow for that.
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