How Militant Vignerons can Remind us of Terroir

I would feel remiss were I not to revisit the July 16th bombing of the Socialist Party headquarters in Carcassonne, France by the militant wine group CAV. Hoping to encourage the French government to correct certain perceived injustices, the group detonated a homemade bomb and tagged the headquarters building with graffiti, reminding the world in a misguided but valuable way of the Winegrower’s Revolt of 1907. Of significant historical importance, the revolt is also the ideological rallying point for the CAV and, deluded though it is, the inspiration for their violence. Seeking to harness the legitimacy of the original event, the CAV have authored their struggle around the unshakable twin pillars of geographical proximity to, and invocation of, the spirit of the winemaker’s Revolt. Success so far has been limited to destruction of property and bastardizing history and that is why, with increased enthusiasm, I urge the wider world of wine appreciators to become familiar with the factual events. Stripped of the superfluous noise created by the CAV we can celebrate the Revolt of 1907 for what IT accomplished and for its legacy as a defender of terroir.

Comité d’Action Viticole

The popular refrain is that the CAV was grown in the late 50’s from the hearty roots of the Winemaker’s Revolt of 1907. If that is to be believed, based on recent activity, the CAV have truly lost their way. Apparently as unconcerned with public relations as they are with logic, they find themselves in the laughably ironic position of violently invoking a successful, popularly supported and peaceful movement while being almost completely bereft of any popular support of their own. Jancis Robinson describes the CAV as, “a group of militant Languedoc vignerons whose chief gripe seems to be that they are no longer paid huge subsidies to produce cheap wine nobody wants to drink.” Other than sounding lazy, their desire to be sympathetically linked to their revolutionary heroes is in direct conflict with their use of black ski masks and sneaky sabotage, actions begging for them to be labeled “militant.” Far removed from any possibility of being considered folk heroes, the membership of the CAV seem misguided and bogged down in confusion about the concept of entitlement.

The Winemaker’s Revolt

              A century ago, wine was Languedoc and Languedoc was wine.                                             -Languedoc winemaker & historian Jean Clavel

Phylloxera and chaptalization have both exerted influence universally on the story of wine but in the southwest France at the turn of the 20th century they acted jointly with a river of colonial African wine to produce particularly consequential effects. The vital relationship between the people of the Midi and their vineyards meant that when man and nature turned against the Languedoc, conspiring with a trio of methods to assault their livelihood and induce a price collapse in the local market, the entire region shared genuinely in the misery.

The trouble, as for so many, started when phylloxera wiped out the vineyards. When the destruction occurred in the Languedoc in the late 1800s, the vineyards were laid bare, regional production stopped and a vacuum was created. Demand, however, did not stop and the vacuum was quickly filled by opportunistic outsiders peddling chaptalized wine and cheaper colonial imports. Try to imagine, after the devastation of phylloxera, the exhaustion of replanting and the anxiety of waiting for your vineyards to grow, all while watching the flood of imports to the local market, the joy of the vignerons of the Languedoc when finally, around the turn of the century, their vineyards had begun to produce again… That joy was short lived.

The centralized government of France, having come to terms with the difficult realities of nature and economics in early 1900s Languedoc, found the newly established stop-gap culture of colonial imports and “sugared wine” to be an adequate business solution and allowed the practices to continue unregulated. Much to the dismay of the citizens of southern France, fraudulent wine remained abundant at market and greatly devalued their first saleable harvest in years.

A decision to lower the sugar tax in 1903 further encouraged the use of chaptalization and subsequent abundant local harvests in 1904 and 1905 created a glut in the Languedoc market, initiating the aforementioned price collapse and extending the public misery. Facing problems with no solutions, there was only one option available to assuage the broadly shared hardships of the people of southwest France, mass mobilization of the disenfranchised, a social movement to redirect the government. In such a charged environment, the fire of revolt would burn ravenously if sparked.

"The Redeemer"

In February of 1907 Marcelin Albert, “the redeemer,” became the spark by sending a letter to president Georges Clemenceau, reading in part, “Midi is dying. On behalf of all workers, traders, growers, hopeless husbands, children without bread, mothers ready to disgrace, pity!” The social mobilization of the Languedoc began in earnest the following month with protests numbering in the hundreds and continued through June, eventually achieving crowds of 800,000.

President Clemenceau turned out to be short on pity. The cause of the movement, the suffering of his citizens, did not move him. He was moved only by the potentially disruptive economic effects of mass protest and moved, as a true statesman would, to neutralize the threat through treachery and force. After tricking Albert into discrediting himself, Clemenceau sent the military south to “restore order.” Organized, peaceful and non-violent from the beginning, the demonstrations of civil disobedience across the southwest did not require external policing until the arrival of the military.

In Narbonne on June 17th, 1907, the proximity of the indignant citizens with their oppressors resulted in the accidental shooting deaths of two protesters, one of which was a 14-year-old boy. Already conflicted about the morality of policing their own countrymen, the Narbonne disaster encouraged 500 conscientious French soldiers to mutiny and head south in non-violent support of the citizens they were sent to discipline.

Importantly, rather than escalate tensions, the mutiny led to the resolution of the episode. The two deaths and the desertion of troops proved to be an awakening for influential members of government, who were finally moved to act constructively. From June 29th-October 21st a series of decrees were made and anti-fraud laws were written.

A law protecting natural wines was adopted banning the manufacture and sale of forged or fabricated wines. Vineyard owners were officially required to report the size of their vineyards, make crop declarations and provide accurate stock reports. Legislature was passed “aimed at preventing the wetting of wines and abuse of sugaring through a surcharge on sugar and reporting requirements for traders who sell more than 25 pounds sugar.” The government agreed to exempt a tax on growers for their crops in 1904, 1905 and 1906 and it was decreed that: “No drink can be held or transported for sale, or sold as wine, unless it comes exclusively from the alcoholic fermentation of fresh grapes or grape juice.”

These steps toward the full protection of regionally regulated wine were encouraged over the next many years in both large and small ways. The Champagne Riots of 1911, sparked by similarly protectionist desires of the regional growers, was the dramatic little brother to the Languedoc Revolt of 1907 and helped to keep the ball rolling toward the eventual creation of AC laws in 1935. 

Terroir    

Though not referenced directly, the most important idea to be championed by the revolt of 1907 is terroir and the importance of its protection. Whether overtly or covertly, terroir is inextricably linked to the issues of phylloxera, chaptalization and imported wine. Phylloxera Vastatrix, relates to the idea of terroir through its second name, vastatrix or devastator, whereby through the execution of its natural duty phylloxera temporarily invalidates the terroir of the afflicted locale. In turn of the century Languedoc, this devastation created the opportunity for abusive practices such as the extra-ordinary use of chaptalization and fraudulent labeling of imported wine. Had “laws of place” been legally defined, Languedoc winemakers would have suffered from phylloxera but would have been protected against unscrupulous competitors upon the return of their genuine product. This reality demonstrates the importance of terroir as related to quality.

In the Midi around 1900, not only was your barrel of Langudoc wine almost certainly not 100% Languedoc wine, it was guaranteed to be of lower quality.  Due to the land it came from, the methods of production and the nature of transportation, the wines from African colonies and those enriched with sugar could not consistently achieve the quality of even the very modest bulk wine that the vineyards of the Languedoc produced. Modernity has proven that, appropriately labeled and regulated, there is space in each local market for fair competition between foreign, manipulated and, of course, local wine. In 1907, those protections did not exists for the people of the Languedoc.

Terroir allows all wines great and small to be what they are meant to be. To drink wine and consider the importance of place, the identity inherent in honest wines, is to do the land and its denizens honor. This is what I suggest we think about when considering the CAV. Use their actions as a mental cue to more deeply appreciate how important the land is to wine and how important wine is to man.

Sources:                                                                                              http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Révolte_des_vignerons_du_Languedoc_en_1907

http://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/a20130718.html

ncfis.pbworks.com/f/UCC+Conference+Presentation.pptx

 

r.a.h.

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