An endangered species?

ArticlesJust Williams

Official figures show that France lost 16% of its wine growers in the last decade, and estates have got 19% bigger. David Williams remains an old romantic when it comes to French wine, but perhaps he needs a reality check as life gets tougher for vignerons

 

 

Surviving as a small wine producer in France is immensely difficult. And it’s only getting more so.

Certainly, the outlook for many vignerons indépendants, particularly those outside the lucky top 10% who work in fashionable appellations, or who are blessed with inherited historic reputations, is pretty bleak right now – and has been for some time.

The immense problems caused by Covid, Trump-era US tariffs and a difficult or, in some cases, non-existent 2021 vintage have, it seems, only exacerbated some seriously unfavourable long-term trends.

That’s certainly the impression you get from a quick perusal of the latest, extensive official census of French winemakers carried out by the French Ministry of Agriculture, details of which were published earlier this year.

The census, which the ministry compiles once every 10 years, features some pretty hair-raising numbers – numbers that reminded this correspondent of the escalating decline of the British pub trade.

According to the initial findings of the census, published in French wine trade magazine Vitisphere, the decade between 2010 and 2020 saw France lose 11,000 wine producers and wine growers, a fall of some 16% from 70,000 to 59,000.

The drop was particularly savage for small and medium-sized producers, defined by the Ministry of Agriculture as growers with a turnover of €25,000 to €100,000 (small) and €100,000 to €250,000 (medium): more than a fifth (21%) of producers and growers in this category stopped trading.

That in turn has led to consolidation. The average size of a single French wine estate has jumped by 3ha, or 19%, in the past decade from 16ha to 19ha, while the productive land (or Utilised Agricultural Area, UAA) used by the average French wine producer is up by 14ha since 2010, a jump of 25% to 69ha.

There’s another worrying statistic: the average French vigneron is ageing. Although the percentage below 40 has remained stable, the proportion of those aged 65 or more is on the rise: up 5% over the past decade and now accounting for 25% of French vignerons.

 

It’s not hard to understand why so many smaller and younger French winemakers have exited the sector. Multiple studies over the past 10 years have indicated that a majority are unable to make enough money to pay themselves even the basic minimum wage.

A 2015 study in the academic journal Wine Economics and Policy calculated that 58% of French winemakers were unable to meet that basic threshold.

What is hard to understand, perhaps, given the harsh economic realities of French wine production, is that the category continues to attract new players: “thousands” each year, according to the Ministry’s report (although it also stresses the need for that number to climb by at least 50% if France is to achieve “generational turnover”).

Then again, maybe we shouldn’t be all that surprised. This is a trade that is well known for romantic folly, a trade which, no matter which part of the world you are from, always has some variation of what is on the face of it an altogether fatalistic philosophy as its motto: “to make a small fortune in this business you must start with a large one”.

Romance isn’t easy to measure in a survey or census. But even when set against a clear statistical reality where failure, or something very close to it, is the norm, the dream of making a life in wine work still exerts a powerful pull on the imaginations of many young Frenchmen and women.

Indeed, from the purely selfish viewpoint of a fully paid up Francophile who judges the state of a wine sector purely in terms of the wines that are available to buy, French wine has never seemed healthier, or more dynamic and vibrantly alive.

Rare is the week when I don’t come across a new (to me) producer of interest from somewhere in France, many of them from wine regions that are – according to all reasonable and sensible economic indicators – struggling, but also those who are rejuvenating and adding interest to areas that are, by all accounts, doing well.

In the past week alone I’ve been thrilled by my first tastes of some ethereal Bordeaux Supérieur from Château Mouette Blanc, a producer with a mere 4.5ha of vines based in Macau in the Gironde; some gloriously supple “glou-glou” reds from 12ha Domaine Cinq Peyres in Gaillac; and some agile, multi-faceted Champagne from Piollot Père et Fils in the Côte des Bars.

We should be under no illusions about how difficult life is for these and other small French wine growers. But at least, unlike for most of the world’s ills, doing our bit to help is painless. We need only buy as many of their wines as possible.

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