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Discovering some old history and a revolution or two

Imagine, 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.

One 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.

This 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.

Not 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.

The 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.

The 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.

Leaving 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.

The 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".

CRAV 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 imported wine.

The 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.

Not 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!

It 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.

Now, 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.

Their 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".

The Terrain covers three distinct regions:

Les Fontalières

The 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 sweet.

Les Bousquets

These 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.

Les Aguillous

These 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.

The 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.

Within 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.

Lastly, 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!

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

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