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The Changing Face of France’s Vineyards

Is character lost when rustic varieties like Carignane are replaced by big sellers like Merlot?

Diana Macle
Posted: September 16, 2009

Even in France, where wine tradition reigns, vineyards are changing. A new study by Franceagrimer, the national agriculture trade organization, has found notable changes in vineyard composition in the past 30 years. Traditional grapes, such as Cinsault and Carignane, are being pulled out in favor of internationally known varieties like Merlot and Syrah. Some worry that unique wines are being lost in the process.

France is currently home to 2.13 million acres of vines, a 345,945-acre decrease from 1979. Today, 162 red grape varieties share 1.49 million acres and 109 white varieties occupy 642,480 acres. The number of red varieties has decreased by 12 percent in the past three decades, whereas the number of white varieties has dropped by 20 percent. Ten grapes that represented 57 percent of all vines in 1979 now make up about 75 percent.

Merlot is now the most widely planted red, tripling in acreage since 1979, with 288,370 acres under vine. Over half of this area is located in the Bordeaux region. Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon have also flourished, growing to 172,726 acres (a 468 percent increase) and 143,074 acres (a 152 percent increase) respectively over the past three decades. Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are the only white varieties gaining ground, increasing 235 percent and 273 percent respectively.

The new plantings reflect changing consumption trends at home and abroad. Rustic varieties that gave vignerons high yields are on the way out. When it comes to red, Carignane, the leader in 1979, with 511,500 acres mainly situated in Languedoc-Roussillon, has witnessed a decrease in surface area of 71 percent, while Aramon, with 155,680 acres, also chiefly located in the south, has dropped by 95 percent over the past three decades.

But some worry that diversity is being lost. A few vintners have resisted, preferring to promote forgotten grapes offering different flavors. Producteurs Plaimont, an alliance of cooperative wineries in southwest France, is one example of growers investing in local grape varieties. “We had the possibility of using a high percentage of Merlot in the production of our St.-Mont appellation, but we decided it would be more interesting to blend six or seven varieties from Gascony,” said Olivier Bourdet-Pées, the organization's technical director.

The group also makes Madiran from Tannat grapes, softening the traditionally tannic wine with the help of micro-oxygenation. It has also set up a conservatory, where more than 2,000 rare local vine varieties have been preserved. Some of these will be used for winemaking in the near future.

Further north, on Bordeaux’s Right Bank, the appellation of Côtes de Bourg is increasing plantings of Malbec to preserve the traditional local blend. “We have around 990 acres of this variety, representing a tenth of our vineyards,” said Claire Giraudon, technical director of the Côtes de Bourg Winegrowing Association. “We don’t have a specific aim in terms of percentage, but we have noted that our vintners tend to plant Malbec when they restructure their parcels to avoid too much Merlot.”

In Languedoc-Roussillon, a handful of winegrowers have set up an association to defend the Carignane grape variety. Its motto: "Carignane gives an answer to our search for a local wine in a Merlot world." The association includes growers producing Fitou, an appellation of 6,425 acres. Made from a blend containing at least 30 percent Carignane, it is one of the region’s oldest and most successfully exported wines.

When it comes to Cinsault, it's possible that growing demand for rosé will give a new lease on life to this variety. Authorized as part of the blend of many appellation wines from Provence, the Southern Rhone Valley and Languedoc, it is frequently used for rosé.

Franceagrimer points out that global warming may play a role in the choice of grape varieties in the years to come. “The current trends are likely to be countered by the changing climate, creating newfound interest in rustic and resistant grape varieties,” said spokeswoman Virginie Nicolet.

K & L Wine Merchants
Hollywood, California —  September 17, 2009 8:05pm ET
There is a place for both internationally popular varietals and the traditional ones. But homogenization denies the very idea of "terroir". And it is terroir, a sense of place, that will protect the French wine-growers in the long run. Otherwise, all they have to offer is wine that competes with lower-cost producers...

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