From farmers to protesters to winegrowers

Sud De France is a wine brand that wasn’t at the top of my favorite wine list, in fact, it wasn’t even on the list. Located in the middle of Languedoc-Roussillon and Midi-Pyrénées, Sud De France is a project that seeks to showcase the diversity and beauty of the region. The new name for the region is Occitanie, chosen because of the historical importance of the Occitan language and dialects.

Occitania comprises a territory similar to an area controlled by the counts of Toulouse in the 12th-13th centuries and the Occitan cross (used by the counts of Toulouse) is currently a popular cultural symbol.

Occitanie became official on June 24, 2016 and includes the following localities and population:

The territory is located between two mountain ranges, the Massif Central to the north, and the Pyrenean foothills to the south, and between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic Ocean.

Most wines from the Languedoc-Roussillon region are blends of important traditional red grape varieties, including Carignan, Cinsault, Grenache Noir and Mourvèdre. Current plantings include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. The most important white grape varieties are Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Rousanne Viognier and Ugni Blanc with growing interest in Chardonnay.

Remarkable story

Although this part of France has notable winemaking achievements, its history is obscure except for historians and scholars who focus on the economic and political foundations of the wine industry.

Research suggests that the Languedoc-Roussillon region was first settled by the Greeks who planted vineyards in this region in the 5th century BC. From the 4th to the 19th century, Languedoc was known for producing high quality wines, but this changed with the arrival of the industrial age when production turned to the big red, mass-produced, inexpensive red table wine used to satisfy the growing labor force. Languedoc became renowned for producing large quantities of poor plonk which was served in massive quantities to French troops during World War I. Fortunately, this orientation has passed into history and the region now produces quality wines. Currently, local winemakers produce wines ranging from Bordeaux-style reds to Provencal-inspired pinks.

Gerard Bertrand

Years ago, I had the chance to review this part of the planet and was introduced to the biodynamic approach to viticulture and winemaking from the perspective of Gérard Bertrand. What I didn’t know was the region’s tumultuous history and how the actions and activities of early 20th century wine industry players and the French government laid the foundation for the current state of the wine industry in Occitania.

A tumultuous time

Montpellier on June 9, 1907. Demonstrators invade the Place de la Comédie

We don’t generally consider people in the wine industry to be revolutionaries and certainly not activists; however, in 1907, French winemakers in Languedoc-Roussillon led a mass protest estimated at around 600,000 to 800,000 people. In 1908, Lower Languedoc had a million inhabitants, so one out of two Languedocians demonstrated, paralyzing the region and defying the State.

French winegrowers matter

Why were the French “armed”? They were threatened by wines imported from the French colony of Algeria through the port of Sète, and by chaptalisation (adding sugar before fermentation to increase the alcohol content). Members of the wine industry have rioted and protests have included all levels of the industry – from winemakers and farm workers to estate owners and grape growers. The wine industry had not experienced such a crisis since the phylloxera epidemic (1870-1880). The situation was dire: winegrowers could not sell their product, leading to high unemployment and everyone feared things would get worse.

At the time, the French government thought that importing Algerian wine was a good idea to deal with the decline in French wine production due to phylloxera. From 1875 to 1889, a third of the total area of ​​French vines was destroyed by this root-eating insect and French wine production fell by around 70%.

With the spread of phylloxera, many French winegrowers emigrated to Algeria and introduced their technology and know-how to the region where vines had been growing since the first millennium BC; however, centuries of Muslim rule created a local population that did not consume alcohol. The good news? Wine consumption in France has remained the same! In a short-sighted attempt to solve the shortage problem, the French government encouraged wine production in its Algerian colony while limiting imports from Spain or Italy.

When the phylloxera crisis was resolved by grafting American rootstocks onto French wines, the French wine industry began to recover and production slowly returned to a pre-crisis level of 65 million hectoliters . However, Algerian wines continued to flood the market at a lower price (down more than 60% over a 25-year period), which had a negative impact on French producers.

Postcard from 1910 displaying an image of wine shipments departing from Oran, Algeria, for France. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Protests

French wine producers wanted limits on imported wine and began demonstrating through street protests and violence (directed actions), including mutinies, looting and the burning of public buildings. on June 9, 1907, the Revolt (Great Revolt, Revolt of Languedoc winegrowers; also known as the revolt of the poor of the South) included tax strikes, violence and the defection of many army regiments creating an atmosphere of crisis which was suppressed by the government of George Clemenceau.

Although the uprising was regional, the National Assembly feared that this southern movement was in fact an attack on the French Republic. In response to the protests, the French government raised tariffs on wine imports from Italy and Spain, which was another mistake as it further increased the consumption of duty-free imports from Algeria.

Once again, French producers (including Bordeaux, Champagne and Burgundy) attacked the government by “encouraging” them to stop the influx of Algerian wines because they wanted to protect their own markets for “high quality wines”. They forced the introduction of new legislation, supporting the political representatives of the regions who agreed with their position. This fear turned out to be an illusion, and the move ultimately ended in compromise, disappointment, and what seemed like a victory for the central state.

The port of Sète acted as a catalyst for the crisis. This town was the center of a large production area and increased the risk of overproduction by encouraging the use of Aramon grapes from large vineyards – creating volume. Algerian wines and production grew from 500,000,000 liters in 1900 to 800,000,0000 in 1904. The increase in production and the availability of fake Algerian wines and wine blends saturated the consumer market and imports increased in 1907, swelling the imbalance between supply and demand causing prices to decline and ultimately triggering an economic crisis.

In 1905, the French government passed a law on “frauds and falsifications”, laying the foundations for the production of a “natural” wine. Article 431 required that the wine sold clearly indicate the origin of the wine to avoid “deceptive commercial practices”, and explicitly stated that the law also applied to Algeria. Other laws protecting winegrowers have introduced a specific link between the “quality” of wine, the region where it was produced (the terroir) and the traditional method of production, establishing the regional limits of Bordeaux, Cognac, Armagnac and Champagne (1908-1912) and called appellations.

Unfortunately, wine producers in the south of France could not benefit from these laws, although they also lobbied against Algerian wines. The government was unwilling to impose tariffs on Algerian wines as this would have a negative effect on the interests of overseas French citizens and was incompatible with the integration of Algeria as a French territory.

Ultimately, the new laws had little impact on French wine markets and Algerian wines continued to flood French markets and Algerian wine production increased, aided by a law allowing agricultural credit banks to grant medium and long-term loans to wine producers. European settlers in Algeria borrowed significant capital and continued to develop their vineyards and production. It was not until the French government stopped the use of all non-French wines in blends (adopted by the rest of Europe in 1970) that there was a decline in Algerian wine production. In addition, from 1888 to 1893, the winemakers of the Midi launched a large-scale press campaign against Algerian wines claiming that Algerian wines mixed with Bordeaux wines were poisoned. Winemakers have been unable to substantiate the claim; however, the rumors continued until the 1890s.

The Algerian government looked to the Soviet Union as a possible market and established a 7-year contract for 5 million hectoliters of wine per year – but the price was too cheap for Algerian winemakers to make a profit ; without available export markets, production collapsed. There was no internal market because Algeria was and remains above all a Muslim country.

Although the laws were prompted by the Algerian wine import situation and low prices, the impact was long-lasting. In 1919, a law specifies that if an appellation is used by unauthorized producers, legal proceedings can be taken against them. In 1927, a law imposed restrictions on the grape varieties and viticulture methods used for appellation wines. In 1935, the Appellations d’Origine Contrôlées (AOC) limited production not only to specific regional origins, but also to specific production criteria, including grape variety, minimum alcohol content and maximum vineyard yields. This law formed the basis of the AOC and DOC regulations that are important in the European Union (EU) wine markets.

© Dr. Elinor Garely. This copyrighted article, including photos, may not be reproduced without written permission from the author.

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