07 March, 2001

Riots were followed by strict rules

The winebusiness in Champagne may resemble the long gone Soviet Union with its economical ten-year plans. Since I arrived here, my explanations of the close control of business has made many a visitor smile. Others - even amongst those with laid-back genes of competition - seem more challenged by the strict rules.

But actually there are good explanations of the apparent tyranny. Have a look at Southern France these days with local winegrowers under such a economical pressure that some of them angrily responds with violent actions. And then let me explain why the strict rules for the appellation of Champagne are not such a bad idea after all.

Quite simply they have secured industrial peace for thousands of people in the business for almost 100 years.

Riots in Midi
A region like Languedoc-Roussillon in Southern France has for years been a big supplier of cheep wine. The problem is that too many winegrowers produce too much wine for too little customers.

A well known problem in these areas. In 1907 half a million demonstrators took to the streets of Montpellier, 80.000 did the same in Narbonne. They were unhappy with the falling prices of grapes caused by overproduction. They charged vintners and winemerchants - the négociants - of diluting the local wine with cheaper wine from Spain and North Africa. Soldiers were deployed against stonethrowing demonstrators, they opened fire and killed five.

In todays Midi the more militant amongst the winegrowers also target the négociants, who are the link between the winegrowers and the customers. Last week there were several attacks against different négociants, who on top of French also sell foreign wine. Vats were opened and thousands of hectoliters of wine sent into the sewers, writes British winemagazine Decanter.

Foreign wine is one of the targets in an area on the edge of dispair after sales of the local wine has taken an rather deep dive of minus 40 percent in the last three years. (2)

It may seem far away from quiet and rich Champagne. But back in 1911 the situation in Champagne developed in the same sort of overheated and desperate way. Back then the French government chose to send 35.000 soldiers to the departement of Marne to re-create peace after six months of riots, that in April 1911 reached their climax in a rage that so far exceeds what we see in Midi at the moment.

Everything was allowed in Champagne
There were several reasons for the great rage. Slowly one was added to another during the preceding years.

The big champagnehouses had good times during the Belle Epoque before World War I. The winegrowers on the other hand lived in very poor conditions, and without many ways to improve their situation. They were in a bit of a hold, since they made their living from selling grapes, and thus had no living if they did not find buyers. Only few winegrowers in those days had the expertise and equipment to make champagne themselves.

The big houses owned only few of the vineyards in Champagne. They were thus dependant on buying grapes, which they tried to do at as low a price as they could. The more unscrupulous of them send buyers that used any dirty trick they could imagine to obtain this objective. (1)

On top of that the arrival of the railway made it possible to buy grapes in other and cheaper regions in France. And since only 51 percent of the grapes of a bottle of Champagne had to be local, it was a great way to save money. Even worse the worst profit-mongers came up with the idea of mixing the grape-juice with apple-, pear- or even rhubarb-juice. No one demanded that champagne should be made by grapes alone according to the new and very interesting book about Champagne written by the American journalists Don and Petie Kladstrup. 1)

All this combined with a series of bad grapeharvests - the worst one in 1910 where some harvested only four percent of the normal yield (1) - made the winegrowers of Champagne go berserk in April. They were inspired by the 1907-riots in Midi, took off to the streets and raged for 24 hours.

"Our empty stomachs have armed us." Such the Kladstrup's quote a winegrower who participated.

Civil war in Marne
Champagne was already seething with anger and just a spark was enough to light the smouldering rage. That glow was the novelty that the senat decided to recommend a cancellation of a law from 1908, that classified Aube in Southern Champagne as second-rate vineyards.

The law had already through some years put the two wineareas - both part of Champagne - on the brink of civil war with each other. In 1908 the law released great joy in Marne and corresponding rage in Aube. Three years later the situaion was reversed. The governor of Marne send a telegram to Paris where he described the riots following as "a state of civil war".

In the village of Dizy at Épernay cars were burned and pianos chopped to pieces, in Épernay the caves of the champagnehouse De Castellane were destroyed. In the village of Aÿ outside Épernay at least 40 houses were destroyed, amongst them six champagnehouses, complete with caves and stocks. Thousands of vines were trampled down and burned. Wine from six million destroyed bottles of champagne poured down the sloping streets of Aÿ to end in the river Marne. It was the day the Marne drank champagne, so Don and Petie Kladstrup write in their book.

And that was the end of it. The big riots lasted just 24 hours. But the rage send signals all the way to Paris about the precarious situation. World War I however got in the way of fast reform. Only in 1919 a series of new laws stated that champagne could only be made of grapes grown 100 percent in Champagne. In 1927 the first AOC (Appellation d'Origine Controlée) was made for Champagne. It signigied that only winegrowers in Champagne were allowed to put the word champagne on the labels. At least within France. Aube also joined the appellation on equal terms with Marne.

All this has ensured peace in Champagne ever since.

Rules created the balance
The strict rules re-established that confidence between big houses and little winegrowers, that completely lacked. A necessary confidence, since one party owns 90 percent of the grapes, whilst the other one possesses not just the equipment and expertise of making champagne but also the system to market and sell champagne abroad.

You do not have to love each other to understand, that one depends on the other, and on top of that has the same interest: To sell champagne and do it as well as possible.

Which is why nobody seems to complain about the strict control in these parts. The rules and laws may be many and complicated. But you probably should not count on an annulment of the system.

The riots in Midi these days in their own way explains about the necessity of finding a good balance.

På dansk

Copyright: The copyright for text and photos at bobler.blogspot.com belongs to Solveig Tange. You may use my articles, photos or parts of them for non-commercial use and if I am credited as the author. Feel free to link to this site but not in your own frameset please.

Nothing too big or too small for control... Examples:

  • How to prune the vines all the way down to the number of buds left.

  • What work can be done with machines.

  • Which grapes you can grow.

  • How many grapes you must harvest per hectare

  • How many extra kilos of grapes you can buy extra on the market.

    (1) Don og Petie Kladstrup: "Champagne. How the world's most glamorous wine triumphed over war and hard times." 2005, HarperCollins Publishers.

    (2) The number is reported to Decanter by Jean Huillet, chairman of the cooperatives in the departement Hérault in Languedoc.
  • No comments: