Tuesday 2 June 2009

107 year old Carignan vines - a lesson in history

Last week I took a group of winelovers on a day tour round some producers in St Chinian and Minervois. We started the day with a gentle walk to a beautiful vineyard in the heart of the St Chinian appellation. This is a very special vineyard and not just for the beautiful views and the abundance of wildflowers surrounding it. The vines are Carignan and they must be some of the oldest in the Languedoc as they were planted in 1902. 

The beginning of the 20th century was a turbulent time for vignerons in the Languedoc. Following phylloxera in around 1870, vineyards were replanted on American rootstocks which were resistant to the pest.  Demand for cheap wine was high but the newly replanted vineyards struggled to meet demand and so cheap imported wine from Algeria plugged the gap. Fraud was rife. 

Vineyards were replanted with high yielding Alicante and Aramon although some better quality varieties such as Carignan and Grenache were also planted. As the new vineyards reached peak production the problem changed to overproduction and so prices crashed. This led to mass protests by the vignerons culminating in the riots of 1907. This is an important date in Languedoc history, not just for the social unrest. It also prompted a series of reforms aimed at preventing fraud, reducing the area under vine and planting better quality, lower yielding varieties.

100 years on, what has changed? Well on the face of it, not alot. The Midi today is in the grips of a viticultural crisis. Prices are at record lows - a wine producer would be lucky to get 40 cents a litre for a decent vin de pays - and grape growers are faced with falling prices for their grapes at the co-operatives. The financial incentives for ripping up vines have persuaded many and sorry fields of dead or ripped up vines are common place. And while the social unrest may not be at the same intensity as in 1907, there are frequent demonstrations. Wine is most definitely a political issue.

There are clearly no easy answers to the crisis and many more vineyards will be ripped up before an equilibrium between supply and demand is reached. It will take far longer for small, rural communities to adjust to an economy where grapes are not the main source of income. 

However unlike the Midi of 100 years ago, there are a significant number of producers in the Langueodoc today whose focus is on quality rather than quantity. Aramon and Alicante are disappearing fast while planting of high quality varieties such as Syrah and Mourvedre and on the up. Yields are falling and the quality of Languedoc wine is better now than it has ever been.

1 comment:

  1. It's sad what is happening to some growers, but it seems inevitable givent the state of the wine market, wine consumption, and competition. But hopefully those who focus on quality will be duly rewarded. I know I try to do my part as a consumer in the US.