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March 27, 2019updated 08 Jun 2023 2:04pm

Languedoc-Roussillon: heroic potential and economic struggle

By Roy Richards

As a pioneering shipper of the wines from the early 1990s onward, Roy Richards looks back over his 20 years of buying and, more recently, producing in the Languedoc-Roussillon, offering a personal perspective on its potential, problems, and prospects through the annual reports he wrote for Richards Walford customers on the 2005 to 2010 vintages.

Sain et sec was how I summed up 2005 in the Languedoc. I was talking about the weather, though the second part of this qualification was far from evident in early September, when I was marooned between Avignon and Nîmes with flood waters rising and roads being washed away—a frightening reprise of 2002. Someone has explained to me with great patience why the Rhône delta is susceptible to such torrential rainfall and why, ecologically, this is set to continue, but I was either too stupid or too drunk to understand. I preferred the analysis of the red-faced man in the bar, who told me it was the fault of Brussels. Or was it that of the Australian flying winemakers?

The French, of course, never stop to consider that they could, unilaterally, take steps to improve their lot: abolish the Code Napoléon, recognize agricultural land as an outil de travail and exempt it from inheritance tax, reduce social charges, check the dead hand of the cooperative movement in the once communist south… But this well-meaning advice is ill received, even coming from a fully paid-up Francophile like myself. And while this great nation is far from sain (healthy), it is very definitely sec (dry), since the government persists in depicting wine as a toxic substance, and consumption continues to fall. The young choose, rather, to drink high-alcohol beer and spirit-based drinks, promoted by the industrial vested interests close to the decision-makers in Paris. I have long cherished the theory that post-World War II modern France was discomfited by two groups: the ex-combattants—a reminder of the death and mutilation of World War I, the national shame of WWII, and the political divisions of the Algerian conflict—whose numbers decline through natural waste; and the paysans, who just did not fit into the game plan of a high-tech, cutting-edge France, led by a coterie of énarques in their gray suits and fast cars. Paysans were fine for tourism but were otherwise faintly embarrassing and distasteful. The Right assumed they could count on their conservatism, and the Left knew they were a lost cause.

There was a time when Bordeaux and Burgundy mocked the Languedoc-Roussillon, as cooperatives and négociants combined forces to denigrate the notion of appellation contrôlée and to discourage any nascent sense of enterprise or quality. Now, Bordeaux is in difficulty, largely down to its own illiberal and antiquated commercial practices, and a huge, social divide is opening up in Burgundy between the haves and the have-nots, driven, regrettably, by the arbitrary judgments of self-appointed media stars. There is a palpable sense of crisis in nearly every viticultural region in France, except perhaps in Champagne, where there certainly ought to be one. The south, where viticultural land prices have fallen by 40 percent over the past two years, is a cogent example of subsidy perpetuating economic crisis and suppressing the political will to face unpalatable truths. Enterprise and quality do exist aplenty in Languedoc-Roussillon, but the number of growers I wish to represent shrinks every year, as the polarity between price-driven swiggers, which allow London restaurants to make their coefficients, and the arguably overpriced regional mega-stars squeezes out those who simply make very good wine at a fair price. All too often the consumer is the loser.

2006: A different kind of crisis—rancid reflections

Circumstances led me to drive down on my second visit of the year to Languedoc via Champagne. I was attending an annual knees-up in the village of Mesnil-sur-Oger. There was, as one might expect, speeches, drinking, eating, speeches, more drinking, and so on. At some stage, still moderately sober, I listened attentively to the keynote homilies, one from the head of the Syndicat des Vignerons of Champagne and another from an immaculately turned-out lady, the managing director of one of the best-known Champagne houses. Both speeches were admirably articulate about the crisis in Champagne. Hang on—crisis in Champagne? Yes, there is a crisis of supply, and both speakers were reminding the foregathered vignerons (and freeloaders such as myself) that the Champagne houses had made Champagne’s reputation throughout the world and that the growers were duty bound to sell them more wine. I thought of the Languedoc and how, for a similar gathering, this would be music to their ears and how a few more centimes—or even not—would do the trick. Perhaps, in Champagne, too many uppity growers are getting pretensions of grandeur, bottling their own wine, and depriving the cutthroat local négoce of easy pickings? Supply, demand, schoolboy economics, and so on? I decided to sidle up to the beautiful and ferociously intelligent lady to learn more, conscious that as a big buyer from the excellent Mesnil Co-op, I might not exactly be the flavor of the month. She was charm itself, while making me understand that my “big” was her small; but above all, she explained that there was no actual production problem—the hectoliters were there—but that, because the bulk prices were so high, the growers were not prepared to release their mature stocks of vins clairs for fear of excessive taxation! The contrast with the Languedoc-Roussillon could not have been greater: such problems as growers down there may only dream of.

Every other region of France, to a greater or lesser extent, is in crisis. Seeing the prices of 2005 Bordeaux and Burgundy, one might not think so, but that is the reality that underlines the excess. Not Champagne, however. There, wealth does cascade down, but then in the broader, cultural sense, is it wine, or is it a curious amalgam of celebratory adjunct and luxury goods?

Such bilious thoughts lead naturally, in my perverse mind, to an encomium of rancio. Is it a state of disgrace one occupies permanently in a country dominated by an elite of overpaid football mercenaries and their ghastly vain wives? For many perhaps, but it is also the bibulous balm to soothe away such understandable feelings of revulsion. It is also a reminder that provincial France—actually largely Northern Catalonia—exists and stubbornly refuses to conform to the France of big business, and that while one world sees a crisis in a lack of sales and profitability, another agonizes over a surfeit of the same.

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Rancio describes a style of wine, generally fortified, that has been raised oxidatively without the barrels being topped up on a regular basis. Many such examples can also be made by the Spanish solera system, where the mother wine is topped up by younger wine. In some instances—Banyuls, to take one— the barrels can be left out in the sun; in others—our old Maury from Les Vignerons de Maury—they can be left in lofts to bake in summer and freeze in winter. Such fortified wines can be high in volatile acidity so are more similar to Madeira than Port in style. More rare—and difficult to vinify—are the unfortified rancio wines. The first I ever tasted was a late-picked Grenache Gris made, every year the wild boars don’t eat the grapes, at Mas Champart. For reasons I don’t understand, they are not allowed to sell it, but it always enchants me with its notes of dried fruits and nuts, not dissimilar to Sercial. Of course, this wine has residual sugar, but Pierre Quinonero’s Les Claviers and Jacques Bailbé’s Cuvée Florence are dry. I don’t know how Jacques achieved the balance between oxidation and freshness in his 1997, but Pierre believes strongly in the environment of his demi-muids for bouquet and in his bourbes (gross lees) for fatness; the result is a unique and remarkable wine.

I commend to all those unfamiliar with it the complex experience of rancio, as a change from the fruit-bombs emanating from elsewhere, and as a vote of confidence in old France, before she completely disappears, airbrushed away by a conspiracy of property developers and sharp-suited énarques, embarrassed by her continuing existence.

2007: A political sketch

I had a dream… And because I arguably drink more wine than the nanny state recommends, it was muddled and phantasmagoric: Gordon Brown (then prime minister) and a transvestite Alistair Darling (then Chancellor of the Exchequer) were in the bathroom of a hotel in front of a mirror. Alistair was plucking his eyebrows, while Gordon was desperately practicing smiling, trying to look relaxed and reassuring, but the bathroom spotlights kept causing him to perspire unhealthily. What could this portend? In the midst of all the gloom and economic crisis, was there some good news to be announced, some indicator that finally was to point in a more positive direction? Then suddenly the scene switched, and I realized I was in the south of France. I knew it was France because there was a Société Générale in the high street rather than a Tesco, and there were lots of chaps bounding about in bleus de travail and berets. They were breaking out the Blanquette de Limoux and lighting up cigarettes—outside, of course. Then I realized that speedy Sarko [Nicolas Sarkozy, then president of France], the comic-strip hero, whom I have mentioned in a previous report, had just tied the knot with a bluestocking Italian starlet. That must be what they were celebrating? But it was not that at all. It was that the price of Vin de Pays Rosé in bulk had crept over 50 cents a liter to 51 cents. The crisis was over: Courtiers were scurrying over the Languedoc-Roussillon looking for wine. Whereas coastal areas had enjoyed a large crop in 2007, the hill sites suffered a poor flowering season and, subsequently, low yields. Nothing like a perceived shortage to boost demand. Hence the general euphoria, with nobody stopping to reflect that 51 cents does not cover the cost of production and that such low bulk prices define the region’s quality proposition.

This gloomy reflection took me back to the hotel bathroom, where Gordon was still posing in front of the mirror and still making a despairing attempt to look jovial and trustworthy. Alistair was staring at him, seeking reassurance and praise. Just then, a huge globule of evil-smelling red liquid fell on Gordon’s head like the dropping of an enormous bird, spoiling his carefully coiffed hair. My eyes followed the supposed trajectory upward, and there, on a groaning cloud, was a large bathtub. In the bathtub, reminiscent of Louis Chalon’s illustration of the infant Gargantua—“If he did weep, if he did cry, and what grievous quarter soever he kept, in bringing him some drink he would be instantly pacified”—lay a beaming Bill Baker (the English wine merchant who died in 2008, eulogized in WFW 20, 2008, p.22) benignly surveying the world he has left. Actually, no, let us not for the sake of alliteration be revisionist; his regard was malevolent. He was surrounded by cubitainers of Vin de Pays de l’Hérault, one of which he had just tasted, and from his mouth came a bubble, summarizing with admirable brevity both microcosm and macrocosm. It read, “Crap.”

2008: Année bissextile

One side of the conversation went like this: “No, no, no, it has nothing to do with bisexuality … Yes, I know there’s a lot of it about, but think about the Latin root … What school did you go to? … Don’t you call me elitist! … Wine is quite different … Moons, 13 moons, you would think, being a woman, you would understand that … I am not sexist, look at all the women I employ … I am not even going to reply to that remark!”

Country lore has it that there is never good fruit in a leap year, and while the evidence does not really back up such a proposition, this old wives’ tale was nonetheless invoked in 2008, arguably with some justification. There were attacks of oidium and mildew, from Châteauneuf—first time since 1961—in the east, to our own Soula in the west. It was hard, sacrificial work to make good wine, and heavy extraction was hazardous, but some good wine has been made in a rather delicate, restrained style. In most sectors, harvest was two to three weeks later than 2007, and without the Indian summer in September it would certainly have been a complete write-off. I suppose at this point it would be honest to admit that having no wine to buy would have quite suited us, so rapidly has the economic situation deteriorated and so parlously has it been managed. My report last year, with its terrible dream vision, has been comprehensively fulfilled, however much I wish it had not been.

It is a very demeaning experience, making one’s annual buying trip to a region with the express desire to buy as little as possible, but the potential problems are self-evident: One buys a current vintage because of a weak currency at a 20 percent premium to the earlier vintage or vintages, but how does one price those? Leaving them the same will ensure the new vintage does not sell and will undermine the “quality” image of the domaine. Increasing the price risks looking like profiteering, and runs against the interests of the customer. And then there is an even worse scenario: One buys now and pays in the spring, only to find that by the fall, the exchange rate is back to €1.25 to the pound, and one has to write down all stock so bought.

Many years ago, an aging and well-educated wine merchant, knowing that life was far from easy, sent me the following quote in German: Und aus dem Chaos sprach eine Stimme zu mir: “Lächle und sei froh, es könnte schlimmer kommen!” … und ich lächelte und war froh, und es kam schlimmer…! [“And out of the chaos, a voice said to me, ‘Smile and be happy, it could get worse!’ … And I smiled and was glad, and it got worse…!”] Pass on the advice.

2009: Negotiating Languedoc-Roussillon

A lunch with Marc Parcé is always an intellectually stimulating experience. Patriarch of the Parcé clan of the Domaine de la Rectorie in Banyuls-sur-Mer, Marc has a broader vision of the viticultural world than most of our suppliers; he is also a formidable polemicist. His current obsession is the reform of the AOC, the law introduced in 1935 to guarantee and defend the quality of French wines. I shall come back to this later for reasons that will become apparent. He has decided, with his not inconsiderable family, to become a négociant, partially out of solidarity with his neighbors and partially, through greater selection, to defend the quality and distribution of his own domaine wine—an echo of the AOC ethic. His analysis is fascinating. He argues that the vigneron’s job is composed of six different tasks: vineyard work, vinification, the raising of the wine (often fulfilled by négociants in the past), the bottling (frequently delegated), commercialization, and finally, in the broadest sense, management (paperwork, accounts, and so on—there’s a lot of this in France). He goes on to isolate commercialization as being the neglected area of expertise for the vigneron, qualifying it as reste à faire (left to do)—for many a superfluous pursuit. His vocation, as négociant, is a moral one, that of celui qui s’occupe à faire (someone who gets things done). He points to the etymology of the Latin negotium: the negation of leisure, otium. I have to confess that in 57 years of life, 12 of which were spent studying Latin, this rather obvious insight had up to now eluded me.

By this stage of the lunch, a bottle or two down, my concentration was waning, and my mind drifted off to my great-grandmother’s front room, where there hung two portraits facing one another lovingly. One was of GG (as we called her) and the other of her husband, a German cotton trader—a négociant, if you wish. He is depicted at his desk, with the legend “Always busy”; she is also seated, in front of her embroidery, “Never idle.” They were Victorians, and he had made himself fabulously wealthy, until one bad investment decision, made for all the wrong reasons, ruined him during World War I. It was the stuff of Thomas Mann’s Budenbrooks and Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga. Of course, the contrast is stark with the fate of today’s new rich, who fail their institutions and their shareholders; they get to keep their wealth and often, to boot, another board appointment elsewhere. Progress or decadence?

But I digress. The nub of this AOC debate, particularly in the Languedoc-Roussillon, is about economic survival. How can such an overregulated viticultural region compete in world markets? I am tempted to reply facetiously, “More regulation,” but the solution advanced is that you separate out wines with a lien à l’origine or lien au terroir—“a sense of place” would be one translation—from those that may be more linked to varietals and produced with less specific reference to place. In practice, what is proposed is to push all appellation contrôlée wines into a new category called AOP (appellation d’origine protégée) and the rest into IGP (indication géographique protégée). All this maneuvering still leaves what has been described as an obverse, top-heavy pyramid, where Corbières AOP will be for sale at €1 a bottle— not from Richards Walford, I hasten to add. The Parcé point of view is that there is an urgent need to establish a cahier de charges, a short list of qualifying demands for the passage from AOC to AOP, allowing vignerons to choose whether they wish to produce volume wines or hand-crafted ones; the reform would be based on the criteria of “quality, origin, respect for the environment, solidarity within sustainable agriculture, and respect of the consumer.”

Complete with the issuing of manifestos, this is an archetypal French argument, pitting the demands of the right-thinking collectivity against those of the individual, while fingering economic liberalism as the great Satan destroying the dignity of the French vigneron. I don’t much hold with any of this. For as long as the French taxpayer and, for all I know, the UK taxpayer continue to subsidize the cooperative movement to produce wine to sell at under €1 a bottle for the practical but cynical expedient of social stability, what chance does any individual farmer have to capture domestic and international markets without leaching profitability? And while I do not doubt for a minute the sincerity of those trying to get to grips with such intractable problems, how can rearranging the deckchairs by choosing a couple of new abbreviations or endowing the concept of négociant with a moral purpose change anything? What is needed—and I apologize for all those I offend, who will be numerous—is a good dose of Mrs Thatcher to bring them all out, dancing in the streets!

2010: With the benefit of hindsight

I think 1991 was the first vintage I ventured down to the Languedoc-Roussillon in search of wines more demotically priced than our rather classic range, and relevant to a market feeling the fallout from the first Gulf War. There was little demand at the time for our smart Burgundies, Bordeaux, and Rhônes. As so often in a crisis, customers could live off the fat of their stocks but were looking elsewhere for both novelty and value. As relative pioneers, we were able to put together a good list and to distribute the domaines successfully. Twenty years on, much has changed—the climate, most notably, both meteorological and economic. We have the buffer of new markets, which are not laden down with historic stockholdings, and the center of world economic power has moved, seemingly irreversibly, from West to East. Some would add to this that the center of fine-wine trading has moved from London to Hong Kong, but that latter market remains firmly one for known quantities and recognizable labels. This, of course, may change. Equally well, we may face oil at double current prices, and what can one predict for China, which avowedly considers war to be a legitimate economic tool? So did Palmerston, I suppose, and then there are the American three Ms: missionaries, merchants, and marines. Perhaps one shouldn’t worry…

There is, however, another big difference between then and now: Our wonderful, value-for-money domaines—with honorable exceptions—no longer appear in that same virtuous light. Indeed, they increasingly seem expensive. At Richards Walford, we may not allow ourselves to be sanctimonious, for our own Le Soula sells at €12.50. There is another take on this, though—namely, that the wines of this vast region have improved so much that they are now correctly priced between €10 and €40. The market will be the judge of that.

An enduring pleasure is allowing a new generation of wine lovers to uncover the Languedoc-Roussillon with all its economic problems and savage beauty. Whereas, after seeing wines sell well that arguably do not deserve to, and those that clearly have merit not selling at all, I maybe view things with a jaundiced eye.

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