Languedoc and the foreign invasion

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After the debacle that followed the failed attempts of Mondavi to secure vineyards for itself in the Languedoc, Andrew Jefford discusses the potential for foreign wine companies in one of the fastest growing regions in the world. Is the Battle of Aniane a cautionary tale or a fait divers?

In the end, it came down to 185 votes in a local election. Challenger Diaz beat incumbent Ruiz by 615 to 430 votes. In percentage terms, thus, the newly elected Mayor reached Aniane Town Hall by a substantially larger margin of victory than that which propelled President Bush into the White House.

M. Diaz's defeat of M. Ruiz signalled the end for Robert Mondavi's hopes of developing new vineyards in cleared scrub at Aniane, and the Mondavi reaction, announcing the company's withdrawal from the project, came swiftly and gracefully. Though not, one imagines, without some noisy venting of steam behind closed doors back in Oakville. After all, Mondavi had spent four years, and considerable sums of money, pursuing a project which must at first have seemed as straightforwardly exciting as the early pioneering days back in Napa.

The wine world's response to Aniane's rejection has been overwhelmingly sympathetic to Mondavi. The decision has been viewed as small-minded, protectionist, even xenophobic, and not just outside France. Laurent Vaillé of La Grange des Pères, one of the two local superstar estates, has described the withdrawal as a "catastrophe. We've blown a unique opportunity to promote Languedoc's reputation right around the world."

The straw poll of opinion among French wine consumers on the MagnumVinum website of La Revue du Vin de France, too, is marked by shame at the loss of a potential "locomotive" for the region, exasperation at the chaos of planning regulations in France, and anger at the "immobilism" of the French mindset in regard to joint-venture enterprise.

Villain of the piece for most is Aimé Guibert of Mas de Daumas Gassac, who led opposition to Mondavi. Mondavi had initially wanted to buy Mas de Daumas - and Guibert was ready to sell. The price asked was so high, however, that Mondavi said no and pursued the alternative joint-venture route with the commune of Aniane. Guibert, according to this machiavellian reading of events, has had the last word, rubbing Mondavi's face in his own famous red soil for refusing to stump up.

On the surface, I agree, the decision does look small-minded, protectionist and self-defeating. Guibert's tendency to portray the struggle as that of a heroic little wine David struggling against a multinational Goliath intent on producing "industrial wine" was hardly a fair description of the Mondavi project. Before we dismiss the electors of Aniane altogether, though, let's examine the case in its broader context.

First of all, democracy has run its course. This was a local project of some controversy, since it involved the loss of a wild habitat in common ownership and its conversion to vineyard use. The local community voted on the matter, as was proper and desirable; it said no. (At some loss, we should note, to local growers as well as Mondavi, since under the scheme agreed by Ruiz locals were also to be allotted new vineyard parcels in cleared land.) Perhaps if it had been a motorway rather than a vineyard which was due to carve its way through the garrigue, the ecological argument would have been listened to by outsiders with a little more sympathy.

"In an emerging region like Languedoc ... the best soils and domains do not come up for sale"
David Pearson

Secondly, Guibert himself has always been at great pains to stress that it is not the arrival of Mondavi which he and others were campaigning against, but the fact that the project aimed to clear commonly owned wild land rather than use existing vineyards.

Why did Mondavi covet Aniane's scrubland so? What was wrong with other parts of the Coteaux du Languedoc, with Minervois La Livinière, with the Hautes Corbières? If you taste outstanding Languedoc wines like those of Terre Inconnue, Roc d'Anglade, Domaine Les Creisses, Domaine Font Caude, Domaine de Marfée and a dozen or so others, it is evident that there are plenty of finer vineyard sites in Languedoc than Aniane, despite the hype created around Mas de Daumas Gassac and Grange des Pères.

If the amply resourced Mondavi truly wanted to make great Languedoc wine, he could still do so very, very easily. Perhaps he wanted the Aniane bandwagon, and its marketing opportunities, more than he wanted a great piece of dirt.

When I spoke to Mondavi's man in France, David Pearson, about these matters, he told me that the 50 hectare site (within a 1,600-ha massif) was chosen because of, "terroir and soil qualities".

He continued: "This particular site, as evidenced by the neighbours, has the potential to produce wines of great quality. We were not looking for a beautiful château, but exceptional soil, so we didn't want to buy just any domain which might be available. Anyway, in an emerging region like Languedoc where growers are rediscovering their potential, the best soils and domains do not come up for sale."

Château Mouton-Rothschild

Did Pearson feel bitter and bruised by his Languedoc experience? Had he concluded that the American and French approaches were incompatable? Far from it. "There were," he said, "no differences in our approach with that of the French approach. Our particular approach and philosophy is based on the concept of terroir and the importance of the soil and site to great winemaking."

His colleague Nancy Light of Mondavi added: "The wine growers of the region were friends and strong supporters of our project. They are greatly disappointed about our withdrawal and we continue to hear from them daily. Our 20 year+ partnership with Château Mouton-Rothschild is testament to the fact that any differences are bridgable."

I spoke to others with experience of being "outsiders" in France, and couldn't find anyone prepared to launch into a tirade against local xenophobes. "I would certainly not speak of any institutional or anti-foreigner hostility," says Ashley Huntington, General Manager of BRL Hardy/La Baume.

"Once you accept that there are cultural differences and that neither party is either right or wrong in those, working together becomes possible. The biggest challenge we have had is not locally, but convincing the world that this region can produce high-quality, affordable wines."

Even Mike Paul, former marketing manager of Southcorp in the UK and a man with experience of a Languedoc joint venture which did eventually collapse (with Val d'Orbieu), had a xenophobe-free experience. "Our project came apart because Southcorp were very focussed on Languedoc whereas Val d'Orbieu wanted to be big in France, not just in Languedoc, as was proved by their acquisition of Cordier. Within Val d'Orbieu, at every level, there was never any blanket anti-foreigner feeling, but just a huge thirst to learn."

"We approached this simply in an effort to marry the best vines with a great terroir to produce an exceptional wine"
David Pearson

Paul, interestingly, revealed that Southcorp had also spent six months talking to Aimé Guibert about buying Mas de Daumas Gassac. In the end, those discussions also led nowhere. As we all know, Southcorp bought the very different James Herrick outfit instead.

Why, I wondered, when so many brilliantly exciting and complex wines are now being produced within the AOC system in Languedoc, do outsiders still seem to favour the Vin de Pays approach?

"We started off by thinking only about Vins de Pays because we wanted that production flexibility," replied Paul. "But we learned that the cooperative system in France is beginning to break up, and the good growers who leave prefer to work, for emotional reasons, in the AOC system rather than in Vin de Pays. So we came up with a fall-back plan for a range of AOC wines - the problem was that it would have been very bitty, very messy. We wanted to think in terms of 250,000 cases, and that would have meant something like 30 different wines."

If outsiders are prepared to think at a slightly smaller scale, then the AOC has much to offer, as producers such as Nerida Abbott and Nigel Sneyd, or Robert Eden and his Comtes Cathar label, are proving. Indeed Mondavi, according to David Pearson, would have been quite happy to work within AOC if the Aniane parcel it fixed on had been classified.

"We approached this simply in an effort to marry the best vines with a great terroir to produce an exceptional wine. We fully support the AOC system in France. I like to think that ten years down the road, the wine which we would have produced there might have received an AOC."

What is the future, then, for foreign investment in the Languedoc? Is the Battle of Aniane a cautionary tale or a fait divers? My feeling, in the end, is that it will be the latter - a strange, sad little story that everyone involved will be keen to forget as swiftly as possible. I believe that in fifty years, Languedoc will be producing as many great wines as the Rhône valley and rather more than Burgundy; nothing except a lack of determination stops outsiders from being involved. I suspect, though, that most of those superb vineyards already exist, somewhere in Languedoc's emerging panoply of AOCs.

The World Market for Wine 2001

Companies: Vin de Pays

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