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Do or Die ~ the turning point for the Co-operatives

Deep in the Languedoc region of southern France, an area of wine production surpassing any other in the country, there is a struggle for survival for the old village 'Cave Co-operatives' trying to exist in the Twenty-first century with the onslaught of international competition in an over abundant marketplace.

Still run on the French 'Socialist' ethos, the co-operatives have been stuck in a time warp, especially those in rural Languedoc. Many now are literally dying on their feet, ugly edifices of mid-1900's co-operative austerity stand crumbling, leaving the villagers wondering what has happened to their income and jobs. Once a secure and established way of life for generations, progress and changes in taste, have taken the rug away from under them and many who do not understand, resort to rioting in anger against the Government expecting ever more help to come their way.

For years the growers have stuck to the old techniques of vine growing and continued to use old traditional grape varieties and totally ignored the quality of the grape in favour of quantity. Simply the greater the weight of grapes they delivered to the 'Cave' the greater their income, therefore the growers had little interest in what happened after that and the quality of the wine produced. For years, people all over France (tourists included) actually drank it too, as 90% of all French table wine was produced in the Languedoc; it culminated in the wine lake of the 70's and 80's.

Grape harvest Grape harvest

Now that drinkers of wine have become hugely more discerning with the competition made available throughout the world from 'New World' wines and beyond, there is now no place, or excuse, for producing poor quality - hence the problem. For many of the older growers it is too late to change their ways and 'grub-up' their land in favour of new vines (even with subsidies), so they retire and probably achieve more money for their land than a lifetime's earnings in one go. Some of the younger ones are giving up too, particularly those who do not have the passion and dedication required, and attempt to find easier ways to make a living.

Unfortunately, as a result, some of the vineyards surrounding many of the villages have been sold off to satisfy an increasing demand for cheap characterless housing to accommodate a population in flux. The older folk scale down, often the northern Europeans move into the more traditional buildings the older ones have vacated and the younger generation move on to the cities as there is little or no employment left in the rural areas that once provided employment for generations of families.

Route de Pyrennes

New future for the wine co-operatives of the Languedoc

Not all is doom and gloom however. Out of this massive change there is quite a Renaissance, particularly in the Languedoc where there is a burgeoning pride in the "new attitude" co-operatives where groups of young forward thinking growers are replanting, re-blending and bringing new life to the business. Some co-operatives are becoming far more selective about the quality of grapes that they accept from their growers and are introducing grading systems awarding those with the best quality grapes with superior returns. There is strong competition however as many of the younger generation with the determination and will to produce internationally competitive flavours, have broken away completely from the co-operative system finding it too restrictive and so they are not just growing vines and producing grapes, but are involved with the whole process from planting the vines to bottling the wine.

For the Co-operatives to survive at all, they have to make huge changes otherwise the structure of employment, social welfare and support that is the life-blood of many of the rural communities, may disappear forever. History will decide what happens but without doubt at the present time the most exciting wines are coming from the independent families (this will be covered in the next chapter.) Partly because it is an area where EU laws are less confining and they are not restricted by the same appellation laws of richer regions further north and are not bound by the traditional ways of the co-operatives, this new generation of vingnerons are developing and perfecting wines that are full of character, distinction and balance that are ready to be judged internationally in their own right. The new, varied and exciting Wine production culture of the Languedoc is ready to take on the rest of the world, if it just gets the right recognition and marketing that it deserves.

Grape harvest Grape harvest Grape harvest

This article was provided by GoHolidayFrance organisers of Cooking Holidays and Wine Tours in the Languedoc region of France

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