THE NEW MINERVOIS
Discovering some old history and a revolution or two
you have decided to take a well deserved break and try to
discover more about the Minervois wine region in the Languedoc,
south of France. After a bumpy landing at Carcassonne airport,
you drive your hire car in the direction of Narbonne; you
have decided on the slower green route, the D5, where you
will pass one after another tumbledown cave co-operative and
sleepy village, all in a sorry state of disrepair and decidedly
shabby. You may not warm to the region, where every village
has a crumbling architectural edifice of a wine industry,
seemingly in decline.
such wine cave sits back from the road, with the pretty Occitan
village of Pouzols perched precariously high on the top of
a small hill in the distance, behind it. The wine production
buildings and shop are rather garish, circa 1960's, bright
pink concrete and a flashing neon light. Little do the public
realise that behind this ugly exterior some of the foremost
growers and vignerons of the Minervois, are working hard to
produce some of the most well respected wines of the region.
is very unusual for a village co-operative, it is normally
just the private grape growers who are planting new vines
and pushing the established boundaries of wine making forward
into new commercial territories, competing with the rest of
the world. Unable to be recognised in the past as having any
value against the hierarchy of Bordeaux and Bourgogne, most
of the much beleaguered, frowned and scorned upon co-operatives
have generally crumpled under the strain of being compared
with their rather more illustrious Northern wine-producing
neighbours. This has resulted in ghostly villages based around
ugly industrial structures, which are virtually falling to
pieces from lack of use. All that is left in the village are
the lives of a handful of disgruntled co-operative workers
who look well past retirement age them selves! The young becoming
more and more disgruntled and disillusioned.
so with the members of this pink, surprisingly, unimposing
co-operative, situated within the heart of the Minervois.
The wine-cave fronts a massive 410 hectares of vines and an
extraordinary history of a wine region dating back to before
the Romans arrived, the Phoenician era. Under the wine shop
(Chai) is a subterranean cave where the visitor can explore
a small exhibition of the wine region's history. Up above
the tiny museum, over the surrounding terrain, you will discover
that the land is as varied as the wines it produces, from
the parched flat plains of the Midi to the inhospitable slopes
of the lower foothills of the black mountains, veiled with
wild herbs and scrub, called the Garrigue.
wild lands or garrigue, blanket the parched, dry hills, but
in the early spring it is possible to find wild asparagus,
leeks and fennel sharing this rich wilderness with a sprinkling
of sweet smelling herbs such as rosemary, thyme, gentian and
lavender, all of which impart their perfume and flavour on
the grapes that are grown here. The slightly damper autumn
heralds the arrival of wild fruits, nuts and mushrooms. The
bright orange Trumpet mushroom called rouzillous grows here,
hidden amongst the myrtilles and blackberries. The late harvest
wines such as Muscat simply burst with the aromas of autumn,
honey and the musty sweetness of wild plums and fungi.
terrain nurtures its own flora and fauna but also gives shelter
from the strong winds to newly planted vines and affords protection
to ancient vines planted up to 50 years ago. The 'characteristics'
of the wines that are produced from these slopes are unique
in their slightly peppery undertones with the full rich flavours
of the wild berry fruits and fragrances of the herbs. Assemblages
are created with the smooth velvety Syrah, the fruity Grenache,
the spice of Carignan and the hint of smoke with Mouvedre.
One such wine is Albert St Phar consisting of Syrah and Grenache.
the wine cave on the D5 and driving towards Beziers and Narbonne,
the first roundabout that you come to appears to be a mini-cultivated
vineyard garden surrounded with tall steel figures, which
appear to be holding banners above their shiny steel heads.
For several years I saw this mini vineyard as a curiosity,
being situated, quite honestly, in what appeared to be the
middle of nowhere. Eventually, this year, it all made sense
when the statue was erected; the fact is, that this curiosity
is a monument to a man, Albert Marcellin who led the peasant
wine growers of the Midi in 1907, when the brave wine farmers
staged a revolt against corruption within their industry.
This year is exactly 100 years after the 1907 revolution,
where 6 wine workers lost their lives after being shot by
the French army whilst taking part in a peaceful demonstration
in Narbonne. It might have been a centenary since that revolution,
but there have been no joyous celebrations, just a re-emergence
of a similar despair.
history and the people leave me very much humbled, but the
discontent continues and now there is a new development of
political unrest within the wine industry of the Languedoc.
Although this unrest is just simmering, it is already in its
chrysalis form and a group of radical wine growers have grouped
together under the name of CRAV. (Comité régional
d'action viticole) In May this year they have issued the 2007
wine growers version of demands to the New President of France,
Nicolas Sarkozy, more attuned to our times than the demands
for independence that were made by their forbears in 1907
to the then President Clémenceau. CRAV have issued
the guerrilla style ultimatum, from behind balaclavas and
masks to: "raise the price of wine or blood will flow".
has claimed responsibility for mild graffiti attacks on supermarkets
and rather more serious actions such as dynamiting of grocery
stores. A government backed commercial wine producer believed
to be importing wine was targeted and offices owned by the
agriculture ministry were set alight. They have also torched
a car, hijacked a tanker and destroyed large quantities of
group is demanding the rise of tariffs and taxes on wine imports
from Spain, Italy and the rest of the "New World"
producers. They argue that the combined lower taxes and less
complicated government bureaucracy in these countries is allowing
them to flood the French market with cheap wine making it
impossible for French home producers to compete, and they
are probably right.
many wine-makers will own up to being members of the 'rebel
group' CRAV, but a lot of them support and sympathise with
the demands that are being made by them. Being driven to despair
by a world market that many co-operatives and individual growers
alike have no idea of how to compete with, the growers desperately
need the support of their government, certainly they are not
going to be content with just being pushed to one side, similar
to 1907 when the then President Clémenceau offered
the wine growers 100 francs to keep quiet!
has been suggested by the European Government in Brussels
that the Languedoc is producing too much wine and they should
grub up to 200,000 hectares of vines, as it cannot compete
with its own market, let alone the global market. Watch this
space, the people of the Languedoc do not give up that easily,
they will join forces again and fight the way they did the
first time round, in 1907.
The peasant wine growers of Pouzols joined together to fight
for their own independence in 1907. Back then they split away
from the larger, government backed and private producers that
had been steeped in large-scale corruption, adding sugar to
expand the volume of wine production and price fixing. The
men and women of the Pouzels co-operative are fighting again
and they will fight vehemently for their independence as well
as their unique position on the world stage of modern wine
production. Now, instead of giving up, they are competing
head on with the cheap imports, marketing their high quality
wines and targeting new areas of expansion, tourism and export.
moving on from the machinations of wine politics, we return
to the every day life of what it is like, working for a co-operative.
Decisions that can never be made by just one person, the business
controlled by a committee that is elected and never paid,
and the end product produced by 138 individual wine growers.
Is this true socialism, or a recipe for chaos? Who knows,
but here, up to this day, these men and women, the 138 vine
growers of the Pouzols co-operative still manage to produce
their distinctive wines of quality, ready to be judged against
the best of the rest.
fields dominate a vast area of cultivated terrain, surrounding
the village and it's immediate environs, stretching up to
the foothills of the Black mountains. Unlike the majority
of growers in the south, the individual growers of Pouzols
have managed to keep their identity within the co-operative,
producing their grapes for particular branded wines. They
also work together with high quality controls to produce award
winning AOC (Appellation controlée) wines as well as
the less restricting "Vin de Pays D'Oc".
Terrain covers three distinct regions:
vines are grown on the middle southern and south-eastern
slopes exposed to the strong Mediterranean sun and are made
up of a limestone composition. The gritty soil and hot position
are ideal for the Mourvèdre type of grape that gives
the kiss of Smokey nuances to the assemblages that typically
characterize this region. Also the late harvest sweet Muscat
vines are grown high in the inhospitable hills. Grapes that
will be used in the strict AOC wines are mostly farmed from
these slopes, but with every rule there is an exception.
One of the Vin de Pays d'Oc wines is a slightly sweeter
wine called 'Fleur de vigne', reminiscent of an Alsace wine,
but lighter, less 'heady, pippy'! This interesting combination
is a mix of mostly Chardonnay but with just a touch of Muscat
which gives it a mellow, honey hint. Served chilled, it
is great with oriental food or desserts, without being sickly
are the ancient terraces leading down from the high gorges
of the river Cesse, covered with round red stones and rich
in mineral nutrients, such as clay and calcium. The soil
is ideal for Syrah, Grenache, and the Roussanne grape varieties.
The older vines, which have to be harvested by hand, are
grown up here, some are more than 50 years old, their roots
plunging down to 20 foot down into the ground.
are the richer lowlands which are ideal for Chardonnay,
Merlot and Cabernet. The grapes for the Vin de pay d'oc
are grown on this terrain, made up of rich clay, humid,
deeper and richer than the poor soil of the coteaux. This
is where the bulk harvesting of the last century took place
and where the region developed the reputation for producing
vast amounts of "cheap plonk". It is a reputation
that these proud farmers are trying to shrug off by replanting
the old high yielding vines such as Aramon and Carignan
with high quality vines suitable to the changing palette
of the consumer like Cabernet Franc and Merlot.
new generation of vignerons are calling upon their ancestral
know-how, combined with an inherited passion for wine making,
fully encompassing the modern techniques and 'New World' influences.
Tackling the new sophistication in wine trends head on, the
young vignerons have set aside their dependence on mass production
and are concentrating on not only wines for the connoisseur,
but for both their own home production and an ever growing
and popular tourist trade.
this group of men is one such farmer, Thierry Gras. As well
as being one of the co-operatives larger producers he is also
the sales director of the cave. His lands are situated on
the plains or Les Aguillous, as they are more accurately called
and on the high coteaux near Maillac. He grows Syrah and Merlot
on the higher slopes and chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon
on the lower richer plains. He and the other farmers produce
a wine called Duos which is an assemblage of chardonnay and
Cabernet Sauvignon and has a strong fresh, but light taste
with a hint of gooseberry running through it.
through continuing to work together, the modern descendants
of the 1907 farmers will create a massive area of production
for their co-operative and all that they ask their government
for is support, but sometimes not being taken for granted
is the last thing that happens!
article was provided by GoHolidayFrance organisers of Cooking
Holidays and Wine Tours in the Languedoc region of France
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