midicanalThe Wine Wars * by Rusty Tunnard

The Wine Wars *

The economic history of the Languedoc can be summarized in one word farming. Before the Revolution, the system of primogeniture ensured that large landholdings were kept intact by the first-born son, while other male siblings were forced to look elsewhere for their livelihoods. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, many large farms were divided up among the peasantry. While this allowed many people to own their own land, it also made the region vulnerable to the vagaries of demand and outside influence, factors which were destined to have enormous influence on the economic well-being of a large majority of the population. There is no better illustration of this than the recent history of wine, the Languedoc's most important product.

Wine remained a crucial crop for the Languedoc and kept its agricultural balance constant from the time of the Romans to the early nineteenth century. At that time, the government, faced with an acute food shortage, offered subsidies to increase the growth of wheat, making it the dominant cash crop of the Toulousain and Lauragais fields.

In addition to wine, olive oil and silkworms had been important crops nearer to the coast. More radical changes occurred here in the early 1800s: The market for olive oil was diminished by the importation of cheaper peanut oil from Senegal; likewise, the silkworm industry became more and more subject to disease as well as to competition from Asian imports.

By the mid-1800s, the population growth in the industrial north and the ease of transportation provided by the rail-roads helped increase the demand for the inexpensive vin ordinaire grown throughout the Languedoc. This caused the whole of the lower Languedoc, from Carcassonne to Provence, to become virtually a one-crop agriculture, as farmers throughout the area were quick to cash in on the heavy demand for (and good prices of) grapes. High prices were also supported by tariffs on Italian wine brought about by Napoleon III's war with Italy.

For a time, large and small farmers alike enjoyed prosperity. But in 1860 Phylloxera, a fatal root parasite, began to devastate the vines. The solution, grafting French grape varieties onto disease resistant American root stock, was an expensive one, greatly favouring the wealthy, large landowners. This disaster was followed by the dropping of tariffs on Italian wine and, in the early twentieth century by a dramatic drop in prices caused by overproduction and by legislation (influenced by powerful sugar beet growers) allowing sugar and consequently water to be added to the wine. (When water is added it dilutes the wine. Sugar, which ferments, strengthens it.) On top of all this, Algerian imports began to rise, cutting prices even further.

The rumblings of the disgruntled small landowners grew to full-fledged riots in Béziers and Carcassonne, culminating in a demonstration of almost a million people in Montpellier in June 1907.

Albert Marcelin

Once again, as in the Albigensian Crusade, troops were dispatched from the north to crush the demonstrators and to occupy the area. In spite of several years of bloody confrontation, the winegrowers achieved victory in the long run. Sugaring and watering wine were declared illegal. Some of the leaders of the rebellion went on to form the C. G. V. M. (Confédération Générale des Vignerons du Midi), a confederation representing small land holders, that formed an effective lobby for supporting prices and reducing imports, and the wine wars led to a tradition of leftist government in the south.

Today, the Languedoc produces more than half the wine consumed in France. Since it is table wine and not the great vintages of Bordeaux or Burgundy that command high prices abroad, it is very susceptible to price fluctuations and competition from Italian and Spanish imports. From time to time, angry farmers block highways and burn trucks bringing wine from abroad. Although the situation is not as dangerous as that in1907, it is still very evident that wine symbolizes both the pride and the economic vulnerability of the largely non-industrial Languedoc.

From - The Canal du Midi and the Languedoc - a Sightseeing Guide :moc.lanacidim@ytsur

* L'abus d'alcool est dangereux pour la santé. À consommer avec modération.
(French government health warning.)

 

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Revised -- 11 December 2018

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