Winemakers in France are set to distil part of their stock into pure alcohol to be used in spirits - or even cosmetics after a drop in the consumption of wine has led to a surplus.
People in France are consuming up to three times’ less wine today than 50 years ago, especially red wine, leading some producers to struggle to know what to do with their excess harvest.
As a result of a campaign by producers, the state has put forward €160million to help them distil their produce into pure alcohol.
Jérôme Despey, a winemaker in Hérault and president of the wine commission at the farming union la Fédération nationale des syndicats d'exploitants agricoles (FNSEA) told FranceInfo: “We are asking to eliminate some wine from the market, so that we can distil it and make hand sanitiser gel or fuel.
“The aim is to avoid too much surplus and a downward trend in prices. That’s why we are asking for this distillation authorisation and help as a matter of urgency: to avoid these wines weighing down the market.”
The previous ‘crisis distillation’ campaign began in the summer of 2020 to help French winegrowers dispose of surpluses built up at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. This was caused by the almost simultaneous closure of bars and restaurants around the world.
At that time, the producers distilled alcohol to make bioethanol, perfumes, and the then-in-demand hand sanitiser gel.
‘Cutting off a finger to save the arm’
Distillation is one solution suggested when there is too much wine on the market as a means of avoiding sharp price drops.
Reducing production is another option. But that means pulling up vines – something that some producers say they do with heavy hearts.
Jean-Samuel Eynard, a winegrower in Gironde, said: “We have no choice but to rip up the Bordeaux vineyards that cost us money every year. We made the decision that it was better to cut off a finger than let the gangrene eat our arm.
“[But] when you're a winegrower, tearing out a vine feels absolutely inconceivable. This job is in your blood.”
A winegrower collective in Gironde, Viti33, has said that at least 15,000 hectares of vines will need to be pulled.
It is now calling for government compensation to help producers, it says, “get their heads above water”. It estimates the damage to be worth at least €10,000 per hectare.