Changes in the French Winescape

By Crowley, William K. | The Geographical Review, July 1993 | Go to article overview

Changes in the French Winescape


Crowley, William K., The Geographical Review


WINE has been produced in France for more than two and one-half millennia and has played a large role in French dietary habits, culture, and economy for centuries. Some two million French owe their livelihood directly to the vine. The international role and influence of the French in the ways of wine remain preeminent. Yet the French wine industry has also witnessed substantial transformations in recent decades, including changes in winery ownership and technology, in vineyard mechanization, and in governmental support. In the vineyard the changes have been so substantial that they have been termed a viticultural revolution (Loubere 1990, 37-75).

This article focuses on two aspects of that revolution: the decline in French vineyard hectarage, which shrank by 31 percent between 1968 and 1988, and the marked alteration of the varietal composition of French vineyards both in the country as a whole and in specific regions. I examine the national and regional trends for the past three decades, suggest reasons for the described modifications, and search for commonalities between the French experience and that of wine-producing regions elsewhere. French agricultural censuses for 1958, 1968, 1979, and 1988 (Ministere de l'agriculture 1960; Ministere de l'agriculture et de la foret 1970, 1980, 1990) provide the base data for this study. Insights into their interpretation come from an abundance of other published sources, including documents from governmental agencies, the French wine bureaucracy, local wine organizations, and especially the National Institute of Agricultural Research (INRA), as well as the work of geographers, historians, and wine journalists. Interviews with wine-industry representatives and governmental officials concerned with viticultural and wine issues offered additional perspectives, as did field visits to wine districts.

REDUCTION OF VINEYARD HECTARAGE

The total area of vineyards in France declined from 1.3 million hectares in 1968 to fewer than 0.9 million hectares in 1988. No one factor explains the demise of so many vines in thirty years, but a shrinking domestic wine market has clearly been the prime force. Wine has long been a beverage of choice at French mealtime, as demonstrated by annual per capita wine consumption, which peaked at 140 liters a year in the early 1950s (Gilbert 1987, 33). Since then, consumption has declined steadily, and by 1990 French consumers were drinking only 73 liters annually (Bartoli and others 1987, 103; Wines and Vines, 1992, 42). Causes cited for this sudden drop have ranged from the urbanization of the population, to a shift to ingestion of nonalcoholic packaged beverages at the expense of alcoholic ones, to a new generation eager to do things differently from its elders, including what it selects to drink.

Unfortunately for producers, vineyard yields rose concurrently with the declining consumption. The French could not begin to drink all the wine they produced, and exports were nowhere near sufficient to absorb the surplus. France had more vineyards than it needed; by the mid-1970s, the wine excess was some 30 million hectoliters annually (Fornairon 1989, 86).

Overproduction of French wine is not a new phenomenon. In 1907, riots and death resulted from grower protests over low prices, caused by too much wine on the market. Similar market problems in the 1930s led to the enactment of the Statut de la Viticulture, a legal code designed to help ensure supply-demand balance in production (Loubere 1990, 31). Even during the 1950s, when per capita consumption peaked, France was producing more wine than the populace could drink. In response, the French government began to encourage removal of vineyards, albeit with limited success: between 1958 and 1968, French vineyard hectarage fell by only 2.4 percent (Ministere de l'agriculture 1960; Ministere de l'agriculture et de la foret 1970). With continued excessive production, the government adopted the Plan Chirac between 1971 and 1973, which was largely targeted at surplus-producing districts in southern France and designed to eliminate some vineyards and to modify others by replacing lower-quality, high-producing varieties with higher-quality, lower-yielding ones. …

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