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French wine withers on the vine

31 March 09 10:39 GMT

By Paul Henley
BBC News

"Of course I don't expect the British government to care about the welfare of French farmers," says Jean-Marie Tremoulet.

"But I would like people in Britain to realise what is at stake here."

Mr Tremoulet's family has been growing grapes on the rolling hillsides of the Languedoc, near Montpellier, for several generations.

He describes the situation for farmers as "catastrophic".

He adds: "The loss in value of the pound and the recession could be the end for my business, as it has been for many of my wine-producing colleagues.

"The English can't afford to pay six euros (£5.58) for an everyday bottle of wine that cost more like four euros last year. And I can't afford to give it to them free."

Tourist angle

Mr Tremoulet knows the importance of the British market - the UK is the biggest importer of wine in the world. Nearly half of his sales are there.

But the three-bottles-for-£10 supermarket offers that South African and South American suppliers can push at the moment are beyond his reach.

If he cannot appeal to the British consumer to go for "French quality", he thinks he can perhaps appeal to the British tourists' love of the south of France and its landscape.

"If we continue to lose the wine industry in this region", he says, "we lose not just a livelihood and a heritage, we lose the way the countryside has looked for hundreds of years."

He gestures out over the neatly ordered vineyard rows, the Cypress trees and stone-built manor houses of the wine estates.

"Without the vines", he says, "these hills will become something like a desert.

"They don't look as pretty as this by accident.

"We don't really have an option on growing anything else here."

Economic pressures

At the nearby Syndicat des Vins de Pays D'Oc, the regional wine association that is the biggest single exporter in France, they are trying to stay positive.

But surveying the figures which show a sharp downturn in sales to the UK, director Florence Barthes knows times are bad.

"Britain is a market based on sharp changes of fashion in wines", she says.

"It's also a trend-setter for the world and that is why so many producers want to be part of it.

"But the fact that it is not part of the eurozone is a huge disadvantage to us.

"We cannot enter the bargain basement sales market - there will always be someone else to undercut us.

"And besides that, production costs in a country such as Spain are about 30% lower."

In a special tasting room at the Syndicat's headquarters, 12 seasoned experts scrutinise glasses of local wine, sipping, swilling and spitting before deciding whether or not they are of sufficient quality to qualify as one of their brands.

"We need to rely on educating buyers and creating a loyalty to a fine product that will help us through this economic period," says Ms Barthes.

'Squeezed dry'

Jean-Claude Mas runs an estate just outside the medieval town of Pezenas which has been one of the most innovative and creative in marketing its wine in recent years.

He produces multi-award winning bottles which retail for between five euros (£4.65) and 12 euros (£11.15) and, even though he says Languedoc wines represent some of the best value for money around, he is having to use dwindling profits from markets inside the eurozone to subsidise his British business.

Essentially, he is prepared to take a loss in the British market for the sake of maintaining his crucial relationship with UK retailers, if and when economic times improve.

"The supermarkets and the buyers have all the power", Mr Mas says.

"We are squeezed dry by the situation at the moment and there is a limit to how long we can hold out.

"What we are seeing now is a pattern of producers going under, of land being sold off to foreigners and developers, people who have no interest in the traditional way of life.

"Grapes have been grown on these slopes for 2,500 years. It would be a terrible thing to throw away such a heritage now."

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