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An American in the French Languedoc

Troubled Vineyards


The Vendage has passed through Fabrezan and with it the final vestige of summer.

Vendage is the French term for harvest and in a Languedoc wine village such as Fabrezan, it remains a festive annual tradition. During the three-week stretch between mid-September and the first week of October, the streets are crimson red with split grapes heading towards the local Wine Cooperative.

The wine industry is a village enterprise and the business model is on shaky ground. Global wine production and intense competition from countries including Chili, Spain, Italy, South Africa and the United States have sliced their traditional market share within France and foreign product exportation is still a concept sounding better in strategy sessions then actual implementation.

The wine cooperative model is based on shared ownership amongst participating landowners with revenues distributed proportionately. Call it collective communism; a concept still practiced within many Languedoc villages. Call it archaic as well because the price of local wine averages under $5 a bottle despite its sound quality and reputation. The Languedoc region in fact is the largest wine-producing region in the world.

Most of the grapes grown in Fabrezan are part of the Corbières AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée), a system used to regulate the quality of regional French wines. The regulations cover yield, location, grape varieties and alcohol content. An AOC committee enforces these regulations and may reject wines not measuring to their standards. In principle, these standards uphold the tradition and quality of local winemaking.

In the consumer marketplace, such requirements are absolutely stifling in terms of creating diverse and innovative wines.

To insure the bulk of their product offerings accommodate AOC regulations, Fabrezan grows primarily six red varietal grapes: Grenache noir and gris, syrah, mourvèdre, cinsault and carignan (the largest component). White wine grapes are practically non-existent.

Additional more renowned grapes such as merlot, cabernet sauvignon and sauvignon blanc are grown in modest quantities, but must be classified as Vins de Pays, traditionally simple country wines barely reputed above common table wine. Make no mistake, these wines can be excellent, but their non-AOC status relegates them to niche distribution.

Sadly, the well-intentioned AOC status is chocking the commercial viability of Fabrezan and Corbière wines in the world marketplace. The AOC grapes (with the exception of possibly Syrah) do not constitute the top-tier of French or worldwide consumer demand. The region has bet on the wrong horses in a competitive race for decades. Despite maximum harvest yields and quality wines, creating product for minimal public demand is hardly a sound strategy for digging out of a financial hole.

It is no secret the local wine industry is in trouble and the pain touches deeply to a local economy based on a single industry. From the Vendage grape pickers to the wine blenders of the Cooperative, everyone knows change is inevitable. They share an extreme pessimism towards the future and the evolution of their livelihood.

Expanded private ownership of boutique wineries disregarding the AOC label is the future. Negotiants (large wine houses) within France with greater capital financing will purchase the unprofitable but productive terrain and replant more commercially welcomed grapes.

This concept of individual wineries specializing in specific varietals and blending grapes grown outside of the region is commonplace within California’s Napa and Sonoma wine regions, but suspicious sounding to winemaking steeped and shackled by tradition.

The locals will howl and resist, but a resistance to change and their blinders to the buying public have cast their fate. The transition is being discreetly implemented now ultimately changing the fate of these troubled fields.

Marques Vickers will be contributing monthly columns sharing his experiences as an expatriate in Languedoc.

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