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Last Updated: Thursday, 10 August 2006, 12:25 GMT 13:25 UK
Draining France's 'wine lake'
Caroline Wyatt
By Caroline Wyatt
BBC News, Bordeaux, France

France is facing a tough challenge from New World wines

Wine critics are predicting that France's Bordeaux region is in for another vintage year for the best-known chateaux, whose wines are still selling well on the world market despite overproduction in Europe.

Yet it is a very different story for smaller Bordeaux wine-growers.

They are once again facing up to the start of a new round of crisis distillation this August, aimed at helping to drain Europe's "wine lake".

Last year, Bordeaux alone distilled around 23 million bottles-worth of wine into ethanol or biofuel - and some fear that this year, it could be even more.

Unique varieties

It is the growing season, and Bordeaux's 10,000 wine-makers can do little but pray the weather holds until the grapes ripen in the heat.

We can't carry on producing more than we can sell
Bernard Farges

At Chateau Pichon-Longueville Comtesse de Lalande vineyard in the Medoc, owner May Eliane de Lencquesaing is hoping for another vintage year.

Business for her is booming: the high-quality wine she produces is sold mainly abroad to wine-lovers who appreciate the complex blend of grapes typical of Bordeaux.

"What has made the wines of Bordeaux great is their complexity and their elegance, and that comes from the blend of different grape varieties," says the octogenarian.

She is a sprightly advert for the health benefits of red wine, looking several decades younger than her age as she walks across the chateau's manicured lawn.

"It's exactly like listening to music: the different grape varieties provide all the different elements."

Vineyard 'catastrophe'

Yet the complex symphony of tastes in a good Bordeaux wine seems lost on many potential customers abroad these days.

A woman harvests grapes in France's Bordeaux region
There are some 10,000 wine-makers in the Bordeaux region

Increasingly, wine drinkers in Britain and America prefer the simplicity of both the taste and labelling of New World wines from Australia or California, often made with a single grape variety.

The other problem for France is that there are too many growers across the globe producing too much wine - and too few people drinking it, despite the opening of new markets in India and China.

In the past, the European Union subsidised the planting of vines, but now it is underwriting crisis distillations to try to reduce excess production, with many parts of France hard-hit by the crisis.

Bernard Richard is suffering the bitter consequences. Every day, he and his family can see the grand old house they used to live in from the caravan that is now their home.

His family has made wine for generations at Chateau Fourton La Garenne, but prices for his grape harvest have all but collapsed.

"It's a catastrophe. What's happening now is that those in charge want to get rid of us, the smaller producers, so that France will be left only with the big wine producers, who can compete with the Americans or the Australians," he says angrily.

Mr Richard and his wife made the decision to sell their home in order to keep their business on their 30th wedding anniversary.

Crisis distillation

Some wine-growers here admit that complacency may have added to their woes.

Bordeaux is still a dream wine and definitely one for the future
Francois Despagne
wine critic

Bernard Farges of Chateau de l'Enclos is one of many growers in Bordeaux who is likely to be forced into crisis distillation - with a portion of his lovingly-grown wine due to be turned into ethanol.

The EU will pay a subsidy for each litre, plus a small extra tranche of money from the local wine-growers' co-operative, making it more profitable for growers here to distil their wine into undrinkable pure alcohol than to sell it.

"The crisis distillation is by its very nature a proof of failure," Mr Farges tells me, gesturing at his carefully tended vines that weave their intricate patterns across the hillsides.

"But this failure is the result of bad decisions taken over a long period by our collective masters. Somehow, they thought wine wasn't a product like any other. But alas, it is - and however nice it is to drink, we can't carry on producing more than we can sell."

'Fine tradition'

In the long-term, the EU wants wine-makers in France, Spain and Italy to pull up an eighth of Europe's vines, a radical measure which some French regions are beginning to accept and even act upon.

Yet wine critic Francois Despagne believes that the Bordeaux region itself still has a bright future, however great the competition from New World wines.

"We have our history, our work, a fine tradition and a way of doing things that has been tested by time," he says with a smile, as he raises a glass of the rich red produce of St Emilion - a picturesque hillside town in Bordeaux whose grand caramel-colour stone buildings grew from the profits of the vine.

"I don't say we are the best in the world, but we produce very, very good wine. For me, Bordeaux is still a dream wine and definitely one for the future."

Smaller wine-growers here hope desperately that he is right, if the vineyards of Bordeaux are to stop their lifeblood slowly draining away.

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