In La Tribune 03/02/2024
In 1900, France produced 67 million hectoliters of wine and consumed 150 liters per capita. In 2023, it was 46 million and a consumption of 40 liters with a population 60% larger. Despite the omnipresent overproduction crisis, French winegrowers have continued to improve their wines, following the example of those from the Gard department.
Gard is the Rolls of Protected Designations of Origin (AOP) to such an extent that every year the department organizes a competition there called “Militants du gout” (taste activists), the jury of which is solely recruited from among its inhabitants. The medalists are the best artisans who use fruits and vegetables from the Cévennes in the north of the department; then the olive groves, aromatic herbs, honey and cheeses from the Garraigues; further down the fruits of Costières; then lavender, rice and salt from the Camargue and, finally, fish production from the Mediterranean Sea. Each of its altitudes corresponds to livestock farming: poultry, snails, sheep, goats, pigs, and that of horses and bulls, one of the most extensive in Europe.
Each region also cultivates its own vines and wines. They are so different from each other that no less than fourteen AOP and IGP (Protected Geographical Indication) classify Gard wines. Naturally, the personality of the winegrowers from each of these very distinct terroirs is differentiated by small touches, but everywhere the same passion is expressed, the same curiosity to change things, to push the limits, to innovate.
Although excellent white and rosé wines are omnipresent in its terroirs, it is true that for some time the image of Gard has been that of the “Gros Rouge” (red plonk). It was that of conventional wine production favoring volumes, consuming many chemicals inputs, sometimes irrigated and with yields which could reach 200-250 hectoliters per hectare. The vineyards were structured to allow machines to pass through, the vines were exhausted after twenty years, then uprooted and replaced by “accounting vines”, because they were financed by the European Common Agricultural Policy. We have to change this software, this image no longer corresponds to reality.
Since then, the generation of Gard winegrowers of the 1960s have most often graduated in agronomy. Thanks to the freedom offered by this scientific knowledge, conventional vines have moved towards organic farming by abandoning agrochemical inputs: herbicides, insecticides, fungicides. That is to say that the soils of the vineyards improved, they remained grassed to retain humidity and better fix nitrogen; hedges were planted to the west of the vineyards to mitigate the harmful effects of winds and the setting sun; trees are planted in the vineyards to remineralize the soil and shade the grapes in order to lower sugar levels; diseases treated with natural materials – copper or sulfur – which no longer work on the plant from the inside as agrochemistry did and cost 3 to 7 times less than chemical products. A virtuous environmental and financial circle has been created.
The effort is gigantic. Especially since the same Gard generation also systematized the conservation of old vines to prioritize quality over quantity. These are pruned in the old goblet fashion, for self-defense. By this prune, the vegetation forms a hanging bouquet which increases the shade on the grapes and reduces their alcohol content. It also reduces water stress at the base of the vine while drying its heights by aeration in order to combat humidity favorable to attacks of mildew, powdery mildew or botrytis. Certainly, this goblet prune requires manual harvesting, but this protects the indigenous yeasts on the berries which, in addition to those inhabiting the cellars, allow natural vinification without chemical input. Here again, a virtuous circle has been established.
These old vines produce the best wines with yields that respect their age, far from the 200-250 hectolitres of twenty-year-old vines. In the Camargue, the 40-year-old vines of Domaine de Montcalm produce 50 hectolitres per hectare for the Collection and Prestige cuvées. At the other north end of the department, in the Cévennes, Domaine de Berguerolles, the birthplace of Clos Rouge and the seventeen-varietal Hermès Blanc, sees its 54-year-old vines produce 30 to 90 hectolitres per hectare, depending on the richness of the soil, for the Léopoldo cuvée. In the center, in the former salty mangrove swamps of Langlade and Vaunage, Domaine Edgard Dufès Successeurs boasts 56-year-old vines producing 20 hectoliters for the cuvée “vins vieux de bourgogne”, already chosen by Louis XIV. At Château l’Ermite d’Auzan, they are also 56 years old, producing 20 hectolitres for the cuvée Sainte Cécile. At 67, at Château Mourgues du Grès, they produce 20 hectolitres for the Terre de Feu, Cuve 46 and Equinox cuvées. At Domaine des Célestes, they are 84 and produce 40 hectolitres for the Arcturus cuvée. Finally, at Jean Kreydenweiss, the vines were planted in 1909, are 115 years old and produce 15 hectoliters per hectare for the cuvée KA.
The old generation in Gard worked 70 hours a week… without vacations, i.e. twice the 35-hour week… with vacations. Today, the vineyard is in the hands of a generation of 20 to 30 year-olds. Often with a double degree in agronomy and management, these winegrower-engineers are at once viticulturists, winemakers, marketingpeople and managers, and have learned new ways of working in vineyards all over the world.
They share the same passion as their predecessors, for some have returned to the vineyards of the Gard to settle on their families’ land, while others, neo-winegrowers, are buying up good land at 10,000 euros per hectare or setting up as tenants. The latter are resurrecting the terroir by, for example, transforming uniform 50-hectare estates into five diversified vineyards of 10 hectares each; with a voluntary approach, they are revitalizing practices by producing the immense effort of going beyond the limits of organic towards biodynamics, aromatherapy and natural wines.
Biodynamics is this holistic vision of the agricultural estate, which cannot be split into a conventional part, another organic part, a third biodynamic part, but must be a single biodynamic entity. It’s a vision driven by the winemaker-engineers themselves. It takes shape in the verticality of the plant between its subsoil and the cosmos of its terroir, but using the scientific method (observation of nature, identification of problems, hypotheses, experimentation, analysis of results, impact study).
This generation of agricultural engineers improves the soil; enriches the subsoil with microbial life by increasing bacterial degradation with herbal teas of local bulls dung residues buried in the keratin of bovine horns; reinforces the capture of light and solar energy by the leaf through the diffusion of mineral preparations; diffuses herbal teas of horsetail concentrated in silica to dry out the soil and weaken mildew, etc… At no time does she seek to eliminate a disease, but rather to control it, as nature abhors a vacuum and it would be replaced by another that was rarer, more virulent or more difficult to counter.
Other vineyard and winemaking tasks are carried out according to the lunar calendar or atmospheric pressure, such as pruning the vines or racking the wine.
These Gard winemakers work in groups. They meet several times a year to make preparations and exchange observations.
The whole is naturally calibrated to the different terroirs, and in the end the soil is looser underfoot because it’s more alive, and the vines more resistant and resilient to climate change. The grapes are more beautiful, and the balance between alcohols and acids is more harmonious because the pH of the juices is lower. As a result, vinification is more spontaneous, the wines stand up naturally better, they require less sulfite, their better-balanced flavors are of greater density.
Biodynamics allows to work successfully in a different way. But it is sometimes described as esoteric, not least because of the dogmatism of its German inventor, Rudolf Steiner. The interesting thing is elsewhere. It lies in practice: does it work or not? Yes, it works, and to understand it, we need to look at how it works in the vineyard. The answers (bacterial and petrological) are to be found in our old “natural science” lessons from the high schools of yesteryear (level seconde or première). Others will find them legible in an old grimoire lost at the bottom of a cellar near Langlade: they are those of tradition and common sense, and only the result counts.
After biodynamics, innovation continues. Notably when Château Ermite d’Auzan revolutionized vine care with aromatherapy, i.e. treating the vines with plants.
Copper cures mildew, but the excessively sprayed medicine will cause collateral damage: seeping into the first few centimeters of soil, it will block the uptake of oligoelements by the vine’s rootlets.
The impact study shows that aromatherapy teas with precise doses of essential oils of mint, thyme or lavender dry out mildew spores. This substitution of copper treatments means quantities of copper in the vines are divided by more than four compared with organic methods. Other plant decoctions and herbal teas provide nitrogen, oligoelements and organic acids. As a result, after two years, the winegrower can see that the soil has been enriched and the vines fortified, the grapes more resistant and the wine more natural. Beyond the environmental benefit, this is a major competitive advantage, as the “medical bill” for copper is considerably reduced.
This same generation, always willing to change, has largely committed itself to the ultimate step: natural wines.
Twenty years ago, under the impetus of the Confédération Paysanne, the first vintages were produced by a few pioneers. Today, their ranks are swollen by winemakers in their thirties, heirs to conventional vineyards or who may never have worked the vineyard at all. They work on estates of 10 to 20 hectares such as Gavach’s Wine, Les vignes de Gaiä, Jaja Land, Domaine Joé Chandellier, Domaine de Mouressipe, Domaine de la famille Scarlata, Domaine de Cassagnas. For these small producers, winegrowing is not a multinational business, but a craft. They exemplify Ernst Friedrich Schumacher’s “small is beautiful” philosophy. There’s no need to rush to their vineyards; everything is sold out, and you practically have to buy it on the vine, as they successfully export 70% of their production all over the world: the United States, Canada, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, Brazil and all European countries, from Sweden to Spain and Italy, not forgetting Ireland. A special mention goes to the woman-winemaker at Domaine de Cassagnas, whose first umami-flavoured white vintage is a hit.
With natural wine, you live the product as you did in the past, with all the risks. The dangers are immense for these companies, since a winegrower wishing to convert his conventional vineyard to natural wine will see his yield drop from 100-200 hectolitres per hectare to 10-15 hectolitres during the transition, then stabilize at an average of 30 hectolitres. At the risk of losing their entire harvest, they need to know how to anticipate, observe and read every microclimate and every weak signal in the vineyard and winemaking.
Faced with these climatic or financial difficulties, they are rarely alone. Here again, these winegrowers have joined forces to form a network. Every Wednesday in winter, they meet on the land of one of their number to prune his or her vines together. The older members support the younger ones and help them set up, exchanging methods and analyses: working the vines, harvesting by hand, making wine without fining or filtration, without any inputs. Farmers’ solidarity is alive and well.
This kaleidoscope of the Gard would be incomplete without mentioning the caves coopératives, whose role is essential for winegrowers who have neither vinification nor marketing facilities. They market 60% of Gard’s wine volumes, and have the mission of expressing the wines of each terroir.
Some are more successful than others, because the men and women who run them were quick to diagnose and then make strategic decisions. Four of them have proved highly successful.
Firstly, cooperators of caves are implementing a quality management system for land and vines that is almost identical to Japanese Kaizen: progressive changes. As a result, 100% of vineyards at the Sommières cooperative are certified HVE, Terra Vitis or Organic, and 95% at Collines de Bourdic. 95%, because from time to time, the weight of standards prevents the remaining 5% from acquiring one of these labels, or from allowing a winegrower to move up from HVE to Organic. For example, it’s impossible for him to plant a hedge or have bare land that encourages biodiversity, because his estate is too small. In other words, it’s sometimes enough to rent the neighbor’s hedge to become organic. The weight of standards!
Secondly, these wineries have adapted their marketing policies, selling less bulk wine to traders. As Gallician’s cooperative winery, they bottle up to 50% of their own production for consumers. Close to them, they all practice marketing intelligence, gathering commercial information useful for strategic decisions and anticipating their wishes. This mastery of the market means better remuneration for cooperative members, so that they continue to invest.
Thirdly, contrary to popular belief, the Gard is an ideal terroir for white and rosé wines. These wineries have created competitive advantages for themselves thanks to the invaluable risk management tool of diversification. Producing a single red product is a danger, when rosé wines are in high demand and white wines are in short supply. The Sommières winery produces 75% white and rosé wines. The Collines de Bourdic winery, in the Uzès region, diversified ten years ago and now produces 50% white and rosé wines, including its Prestige, its Gewurztraminer and its Vignes Rousses, which are on a par with Sauternes from Bordeaux or the Coteaux de l’Aubance from Anjou. Finally, the Redessan cooperative winery is in a strong position. It has made a strategic move into rosés, and is capable of selling 50% to 80% of them, depending on demand.
Finally, in the past, wineries have joined forces by merging. But ill-prepared mergers – i.e., to avoid bankruptcy in a depressed market because no one had the courage to do them before – are always cruel. Instead of rationalizing tools intelligently, it becomes necessary to abandon or close in haste.
This wine-growing mosaic is driven only by common sense: the best soils make the best vines, which make the best grapes and the best wines. No winegrower who has made these efforts in organic, biodynamic, aromatherapy or natural wine would wish to turn back the clock.
Crisis and recovery
Let’s repeat: in 1900, France produced 67 million hectolitres of wine, but 46 million in 2023. In 1900, France consumed 150 liters per capita, compared to 40 liters in 2023, with a population 60% larger. When we condemn the blindness of consumption in 1900, we mustn’t forget that drinking water didn’t exist everywhere (not to mention tap water). It may have been necessary to mix it with wine, but it’s no longer necessary to put wine in your water, and these days, winegrowers’ efforts are hamstrung by overproduction and their fed-up with European standards, whose logic is sometimes impenetrable.
Nevertheless, as in every crisis of overproduction, the adjustment is made through prices, they illustrate the first revolution, the first turnaround. At the beginning of January 2024, bulk selling prices for Costières-type wines were 120 euros per hectoliter, compared with 90 euros for Côtes du Rhône-type wines. But the hierarchy has always been the other way round. The price of Côtes du Rhône led, Costières followed. But, as Warren Buffet used to say, it’s when the sea is low that you learn who went swimming without a swimming suit. In other words, the current crisis has revealed the crossing of the curves between the Gard and the Côtes-du-Rhône. This is a historic breaking point. It shows that the Gard has freed itself from its Rhone-based tutelage. Admittedly, the identity of its wines will continue to be based in part on the right bank of the Rhône, but the Cévennes-Sommières-Camargue triangle, with its rich soil and climate conditions, is undoubtedly calling for something else. A new unity of Gard terroirs could be found around common efforts, shared values and entrepreneurial freedom giving free rein to their creativity.
In the short term, getting out of the current crisis means eliminating stocks of unsold red wine. There is an iconoclastic solution, but it requires a courageous political decision. It involves distilling these wines to produce alcohol for biofuel. Technically, there’s nothing to prevent this, but a temporary derogation from the European Renewable Energy Directive is required. This would be an excellent solution for the planet.
The adjustment will also involve a reduction in the supply of French winegrowers, and the first to disappear are always the operators whose costs are highest or who are close to retirement.
In the Bordeaux region, sanitary grubbing-up is currently underway on 10,000 hectares, or around 10% of Gironde vines, with a budget of 60 million euros provided by the interprofessional organization, the region and the French state. In Occitanie, the government has announced that it will spend 150 million euros to grub up vines, on condition that the land is set aside for at least 6 years. If we keep the same ratio, this corresponds to 25,000 hectares grubbed up in Occitanie, i.e. around 10% of its 260,000 hectares. Will this be enough?
During this crisis, which is not yet over, some cooperative wineries are in danger of disappearing. Some are already in dire financial straits. Several have already expired in the past, and the fatal outcome of these absences is the uprooting and abandonment of land, which reverts to a wild state. Villages are then surrounded by mono-herbaceous and semi-wooded wastelands, whose distressing shapes constantly confirm to the most recalcitrant eco-bobo that the farmer is indeed a guarantor of biodiversity and the architect of landscape.
In the medium term, the way out of the crisis is still Schumpeter’s “creative destruction”. A redistribution of the cards will see new operators interested in the wine industry setting up in the Gard. Large estates will be divided into small, single-person operations of around 10 hectares. Some will turn to differentiation in order to find attractiveness and profitability through new grape varieties, natural wines, innovations and freedom from the weight of standards, notably by refusing to be classified under appellations with outdated and overly restrictive rules. This is the entrepreneurial freedom of the neo-vigneron.
Conversely, and following the example of other agri-food sectors, such as fishing, where they own trawlers, will mass-market retailers be interested in taking over estates, or even cooperative wineries? Will they transform them according to the tastes and expectations of the consumers they are the first to know?
The Gard is indeed France’s unique kaleidoscope of appellations and terroirs, between the Cévennes and the Camargue. It’s a symbiosis of economic models, with nimble cooperative wineries and astute small or large estates sharing a common interest in contributing to the country’s good health through their exports. Their trade surplus is second only to aeronautics. Wine is indeed a matter of sovereignty.
The Gard is also a virtuous model of complementarity between generations of winegrowers, whether conventional, organic, biodynamic, aromatherapy or natural. All are proud that their world-class Gard wines, often under-priced in relation to their quality, remain accessible to the purchasing power of their local inhabitants. But they remind us that a poor farmer can’t feed his neighbour.