ONE CROP unites almost the whole of Languedoc-Roussillon: the grape. The region has the world’s largest extent of vineyards, with vines stretching from the Rhône almost to the Spanish border, an area five times larger than Australia’s wine-producing region.
The region has roughly a quarter of France’s vineyards, and produces a similar proportion of the national wine output. An estimated 30,000 people are employed in the production of 12 million hectolitres of wine a year.
In the days when the average French manual worker drank coarse red wine by the litre for lunch (and dinner), Languedoc-Roussillon was known for prodigious output rather than quality, and this kept the industry buoyant.
But times are bad throughout France’s wine industry. Domestic consumption has plummeted in recent decades – the young don’t drink wine any more – and competition from other countries has raised the stakes dramatically. Languedoc-Roussillon has been hit disproportionately owing to what some people see as over-capacity: too many vineyards chasing fewer drinkers.
The search is now on for ways to keep wine as a going concern or at least to put the land to productive uses rather than let it revert to garrigue scrub. The obvious remedy is to create better wines and its wine-makers have been grubbing up mediocre grape varieties and planting “noble” varieties in their stead. Facilities and production methods have been rationalised and improved.
Above all, Languedoc-Roussillon is being repositioned as a producer of good wines. Regional vice-president Agnès Jullian said: “Wine has become a matter of marketing, of adapting to customers’ tastes and changing trends. Our wines are becoming better known and appreciated. We’re on the right road.”
Another option is to switch crops altogether, reducing the farmers’ and the region’s dependence on the wine industry. Some are now planting table grapes; others are growing olives under the coveted Nîmes Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée. Aromatic and medicinal herbs, and their essential oils, might also provide answers. Lavender is
mooted as one possible crop.
Peter Shield, who is developing an organic aromatic herb nursery in the Aude, says there is potential, because of the problems the Provence lavender industry is experiencing with Phylloxera lice.
“Areas of Languedoc-Roussillon share very similar conditions to the lavender-growing areas to the east; however, competition from Poland and Ukraine means that niches have to be found to exploit. Organic is one approach being looked at.”
Indeed, organic agriculture may be a way forward for the region. Languedoc-Roussillon has the second largest extent of organic farms in France covering 6.4 per cent of
farmland – including 12,500 hectares of vines – and the fastest rate of growth in the country.
In five years, the number of organic growers has doubled to 2,000 and an infrastructure of shops, support structures and distributors has grown up in response to supply and demand.