How two wine cooperatives in southwestern France have chosen to confront wine market globalization with two very different strategies
My oenology class did a two-day tour in May of several Languedoc-Roussillon wine appellations located around the Mediterranean seaport city of Perpignan. This is about as far southwest as you can get in France. Any further, and you’d be in Spain. Actually, this region is more Catalonian than French or Spanish. There’s a border between the two countries, but the language, customs and way of life, developed over the last thousand or so years, flow freely across it.
During our visit, we toured several wine cooperatives and two of the larger wine estates in the area. I will write about the other wine producers another time, but, for this article, I’m going to focus on two wine cooperatives with decidingly different philosophies and strategies.
Wine cooperatives have existed in France since the end of the 19th century. Their numbers vary from region to region, mostly depending on the price-per-bottle of wine, but the Languedoc-Roussillon, which has historically produced low-cost wines in tanker-load quantities, has almost half of France’s remaining 800-or-so Caves Coopératives.
Economic pressures in the 1970s forced many wine cooperatives to merge. Monuments to this evolutionary process, huge, hulking, concrete structures surrounded by enormous wine tanks in varying states of decay, are to be found throughout the Languedoc-Roussillon region.
The first cooperative that my class visited is the offspring of the 2009 merger of two large cooperatives, which were the legacy of multiple mergers of a half-dozen other cooperatives. Which explains its mouthful of a name: La Cave Leucate-Quintillan et Roquefort des Corbières. The original Cave Leucate was formed in 1920. At that time, there were over 400 cooperative members, which was pretty much one from each household in the small village of Leucate.
In spite of the fact that the existing Cave Leucate cooperative structure incorporates an area (1,400 hectares of vines) considerably larger than that covered by the 1920 cooperative, there are just 170 members today. A number of factors, ranging from increased employment alternatives for today’s youth to decreased wine consumption in France, have reduced the importance of this and other cooperatives to the region’s economy.
The new cave cooperative, which opened in 2010, cost €9.5 million. One of the cooperative’s three directors, Joël Castany, told us that $3 million of that came from European Union funds, five regional banks put up €4 million in loan guarantees, and the remaining €2.5 million came from a property developer that purchased the old wine cooperatives as development properties.
The videos on the La Cave Leucate website showing grape pickers hand harvesting the grapes from gnarly, old grapevines are either out-of-date or the fertile product of some PR agency’s imagination. Castany freely recounted to us how the new cellar is the center of a strategy to move the cooperative firmly into the “industrial wine” camp (although the French expression he used—“Agro-Alimentaire,” sounds much nicer).
“The choice,” he told us budding oenologues, “was either hyper-qualité or hyper-quantité.” Each vigneron-member of the cooperative receives an average of €2,500 per hectare each year. That works out, based on the €63/hl (100 liters) payment to the growers, to an approximate grape yield of 40hl/ha.
The average price of a hectare (2.5 acres) of vineyard here, as throughout most of the Languedoc-Roussillon, is €10,000. Which is why he told us that anyone with less than 10 hectares is approaching viticulture as more a hobby than as a business, e.g., if you have a yield of 40hl/ha on your 10 hectares of grapevines, you’re earning around €25,000 a year in revenue. This is more than stamp collecting, but it goes a long way to help explain why most of the youth leave the area to seek less strenuous work elsewhere.
Returning to the “Agro-Alimentaire” strategy, the new cellar is constructed to maximise production efficiency. It can produce 60,000 hectoliters (600,000 liters) of wine per year. Over 50 different wines are bottled from the Fitou, Corbières, Rivesaltes and Languedoc wine appellations, and the cellar, which serves as sort of a cooperative of cooperatives—packaging wines from other cellars, is capable of producing 5 million bottles of wine annually.
There are two Flash-Détente thermovinification (or hot maceration) tanks that quickly heat the crushed and destemmed grapes in a tubular heat exchanger to over 90°C. The heated must is then piped to a vacuum flash cooling system where the temperature is lowered, within several minutes, to 38°C. The heating process deactivates enzymes and bacteria that are found on less-than-perfect grapes, and the flash cooling, along with the vacuum force, causes the intercellular explosion of the grape skins, extracting a maximum of color and tannin in red wines and aromatic compounds in whites.
The sanitizing aspect of this process is an important factor in making hundreds of thousands of liters of wine from grapes of varying quality produced by hundreds of producers. Such an industrial process, favoring quantity-over-quality, fits in well with this wine cooperative’s objectives. That it doesn’t produce the distinctive, terroir-driven wines that I normally write about is beside the point.
La Cave Leucate wine cooperative appears to be a success. It has four point-of-sales locations in the region, the giant German supermarket chain Lidl is an important client, and it is shipping, Castany told us, increasing quantities of wine to the U.S. and China.
It was the best of terroir, it was the worst of strategies
Distinctive, terroir-driven wine is being produced, 25-or-so miles away and 300 meters higher in elevation, at the second cellar in this tale of two wine cooperatives. Too bad, for those who appreciate this kind of wine, that its strategy does not appear to be working as well.
Les Vignerons de Lesquerde cooperative, in the village of the same name, hasn’t changed that much since its construction in the 1920s. There isn’t a Flash-Détente in sight, with the old concrete wine fermentation tanks still in use.
It has around 30 cooperative members, with approximately 200 hectares of vines under cultivation. At 350 meters in altitude and with a decomposed-granite soil (unique for the Roussillon), this area received its own appellation—Côtes du Roussillon Village Lesquerde, in 1995.
Payment-per-hectoliter here is around €80 (27% more than the grower-members at the La Cave Leucate cooperative), but the yields—at 30-35ha/hl, are lower, so the revenue is about the same (€2,500/ha). Where the sums don’t add up for the Lesquerde cooperative members is in their costs. The higher-elevation terraces, with older vines, demand manual labor, including handpicking the grapes. This works out to an average-per-hectare-cost of €3,600.
Whether the sums don’t add up, the wine made here, especially the AOC Côtes du Roussillon Villages Lequerde cuvées, will never be confused with something that came through a Flash-Détente. Both the red and white wines have the fresh acidity that comes from higher-elevation grapes, and the dark and red fruit flavors (predominantly blackcurrants, blackberries and cherries) in the reds taste cleaner and more natural, not having gone through a wine-nuking process.
My two favorites reds were a 2009 Les Arènes de Granit (predominantly Syrah, but with 15% each of Carignan noir and Grenache noir) and a 2009 cuvée Terrae (40% Carignan noir, 30% Syrah and 30% Grenache noir). These are both AOC wines, with the Terrae undergoing a complete carbonic maceration fermentation, with the same technique used on the Arènes de Granit’s Carignan noir grapes to help soften the rough tannins and acidity that sometimes characterize this grape variety.
The quality-price ratio of these AOC wines is extraordinary: €5.20 for the cuvée Terrae and €7 for the cuvée Les Arènes de Granit (Cave Coopérative price). They have a variety of other wines worth trying, along with the obligatory vin en vrac (bulk) wines that are comparable to what La Cave Leucate is selling by the tanker load.
There’s a world of difference between the higher-quality wine from this higher-elevation cooperative and that being produced down below by the seaside (that quality is being recognized, and not just by me; I was told at the Lesquerde cooperative that an American importer has purchased a vineyard in the area recently and that he has planted four hectares of Grenache vines there).
From an authentic-terroir point-of-view, I know which cooperative’s strategy that I prefer. However, from a marketing point-of-view, I know which strategy probably makes more sense in today’s global wine market. I hope some of that American importer’s marketing acumen rubs off on the Lesquerde winemakers.