THERE'S A relentless chugging and puffing from our neighbour Hector's place down the lane. He's got a digger down there, pulling up all his vines, nearly four acres of them. Clearly a big decision has been made. (I feel particularly involved becau
THERE'S A relentless chugging and puffing from our neighbour Hector's place down the lane. He's got a digger down there, pulling up all his vines, nearly four acres of them. Clearly a big decision has been made. (I feel particularly involved because this vineyard featured on the cover of my book Midi et demi: Unlikely Tales from the South of France.)
We go down to have a look at a scene of destruction and desolation. Thousands of uprooted vines in full but wilting leaf lie in untidy rows, heaped on bare stony earth scarred with monster tyre tracks. Knowing that vine souches (stumps) make wonderful winter burning, I beg a trailer-load. Hector, generous soul, helps us to trim off the branches and roots, and we drive off with about 50 souches, ancient, gnarled and knobbly, quite enough to keep us warm over next Christmas.
Back at home I look them over more closely. They're pretty rotten, most of them, with only the slenderest living cambium to transfer the scanty nutrients from the thin soil to the grapes. A very few have trunks unravaged by age, insects or rot. I take the chainsaw to a complete one and count the annual growth rings. The vineyard came with the house he bought four years ago, and Hector has often wondered when his vines were planted. Vine is a very dense wood and the rings are close together. I get to 55, but I can't see clearly enough to count the remaining few. Maybe 60 is a reasonable estimate.
This means Hector's vines were planted in 1947, just after World War 2. There are two varieties, Grenache and Carignan, the two classic Languedoc vines. In their prime they grow well enough, but the wine they produce isn't among the world's best, and very often it can be pretty vile. Unless the wine-producer is very skilled and experienced indeed, wine from Grenache and Carignan grapes doesn't stand much of a chance against the fuller, rounder and better-tasting wines from other areas of France and the rest of the world. In fact the Languedoc wine trade is wilting under competition from elsewhere and the local vignerons (wine-producers) are not happy. But were they ever?
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A FEW months ago I was asked to arrange for 3-part male voice choir (tenor, baritone and bass) a once-popular satirical song called M. Laurent Sauve La Viticulture, Monsieur Laurent rescues the wine production trade. This was in connection with a locally high-powered celebration in words and music of the centenary of La Révolte des Vignerons, The Vine-growers Revolt, of 1907. So I beavered away with the crochets and quavers, carried along by the promise of payment by the minute, an undertaking I at first took to refer to the time it took me to complete the arrangement: about two and a half days, on and off. Euro symbols flashed in my eyes. What the organisers meant, of course, was the duration of the song. Resisting the temptation to write something of terminal slowness, I produced a part-song I hoped was sparkling, not to say rollicking, for all of its three minutes' worth.
The song was about the unwanted and purposeless intervention of a M. Laurent, an agricultural chemist sent by the Ministry of Agriculture in Paris to sort out the Languedoc's wine problems in 1907. The organisers very kindly invited Josephine and me to the première, held in an immense sports hall in Murviel-lès-Béziers, a village in the very heart of the Languedoc wine-producing area. We left not all that much the wiser. The complaint in 1907 was that négociants, middlemen, bought up stocks of wine at prices dictated by themselves, watered it, sugared it and sold it on at vast profits. Demonstrations were organised, a protest movement grew, and eventually crowds in Béziers and Narbonne had to be dispersed by the military, not without fatalities. We weren't certain where M. Laurent came in. One result of the 1907 revolt was the development of the local co-operative system, whereby all the member vignerons pool their grapes in return for a fixed price. This system, still the Languedoc mainstay, allows little room for individual initiative or development.
I'm in several minds about all this. A hundred years later it doesn't seem as though much has changed. An organisation calling itself CRAV (Comité Régional d'Action Viticole, regional wine-producers action committee) threatens to put on the balaclavas, torch négociants' premises, close supermarkets, block road and rail traffic and generally make a bloody nuisance of themselves until their demands are met by the French government to guarantee reasonable prices for their product. It won't happen, it can't happen. The problem stems from gross over-production of often mediocre wines, underscored by a distrust of global market forces and a corresponding assertion of regional tradition and independence. Frédéric Nihous, candidate in the latest presidential elections for a party quite popular in the Languedoc called Chasse, Pêche, Nature, Tradition (Hunting, Fishing, etc.) fatuously demanded an end to 'the Americanisation of taste'. A recent article by Tim Atkin in the Observer magazine mentions 'French winemakers who think it's your fault if you don't like what they put in the bottle, but they are increasingly outnumbered by modern, forward-looking operators.'
Yes, indeed. We have several expat friends and relations who have bought vineyards in the Languedoc and have settled themselves to the arduous and drawn-out task, certainly not paid by the minute, of growing a wider selection of vines than the traditional Carignan and Grenache, adapting and perfecting wine-making techniques from all over the world, doing their own marketing and distribution, and generally seeing a slow but appreciable return on their investment.
Hector isn't among them. His experience hasn't been altogether happy. Finding no other takers, he let his vineyard en fermage (i.e. for a portion of the yield) several years ago to a novice Irish wine-maker with no capital to invest in its improvement. The resulting wine was undrinkable and the Irishman left to seek his fortune elsewhere. A year or two later a Frenchman expressed an interest in working it. Extraordinarily strict contracts were drawn up, largely to the Frenchman's advantage. It turned out that he only wanted it to increase his acreage on paper, on the size of which certain government grants depended. He left it untended. Serious disease attacked the vines. Time passed, letters were exchanged, nothing was done. Eventually Hector terminated the contract and arranged to have his vines grubbed up.
'Will you replace them?' I asked him. No, he said, that was the last thing he'd do. He'd had several ideas about future use of his land. He'd thought about keeping goats. Or llamas. Finally, with his bees in mind, he thought he would sow his three-and-a-bit acres with meadow plants.
We'll drink to that. And in case you're wondering what we'll toast Hector's bee-meadow in after slating Languedoc wines so comprehensively, I have to say there are many exceptions and that high quality, superbly crafted wines are there if you know where to look for them. Just now we're happily working our way through a case of a rouge by the name of Terradou, a Vin de Pays made by an independent producer called Yannick Poras. He operates out of his own premises, Mas de Rouyre, in St Martin de l'Arçon, a village not far from here. It just shows what can be done. Tschin, as they say down here, a French adaptation of the English ‘chin-chin’, in case you were wondering.