For France, American vines are always synonymous with sour grapes

BEAUMONT, France – Vines were once demonized for causing madness and blindness, and had been banned decades ago. The French authorities...


BEAUMONT, France – Vines were once demonized for causing madness and blindness, and had been banned decades ago. The French authorities, brandishing money and sanctions, almost annihilated them.

But they were there. On the side of a winding mountain road in a remote corner of southern France, forbidden culture flourished. Early one recent evening, Hervé Garnier inspected his field with relief.

In a year when an April frost and disease have decimated the overall wine production in France, Mr. Garnier’s grapes – an American hybrid variety named Jacques, banned by the French government since 1934 – were already turning red. Barring a cold snap in early fall, everything was on track for a new vintage.

“There really is no reason for its ban,” Mr. Garnier said. “Forbidden? I would like to understand why, especially when we see that the ban is based on nothing.

Mr. Garnier is one of the latest laggards in a long-standing struggle against the French winery and its allies in Paris. The French government has attempted to uproot jacquez and five other American grape varieties from French soil over the past 87 years, arguing that they are bad for human physical and mental health – and produce bad wine.

But in recent years, the hardiness of American varieties has given a boost to guerrilla winemakers like him, as climate change wreaks havoc on Europe’s vineyards and natural wines made without pesticides have become increasingly popular. most popular.

Despite France’s commitment in 2008 to halve the use of pesticides, it has steadily increased over the past decade. Vineyards occupied just over 4% of France’s agricultural land but used 15% of all pesticides nationwide in 2019, according to the Ministry of Agriculture.

“These vines ensure abundant harvests, without irrigation, without fertilizer and without treatment”, explains Christian Sunt, member of Forgotten fruits, a group fighting for the legalization of American grapes. Presenting prohibited vines, including Clinton and Isabelle, on a property in the south of the Cévennes, near the town of Anduze, he adds: “These vines are ideal for making natural wine.

American grapes have long played a central role in the tumultuous and moving history of wine between France and the United States – in turn threatening and reviving French production.

It all started in the mid-1800s when vines native to the United States were brought to Europe, along with a piggyback louse known as phylloxera. While American vines were resistant to the pest, their European counterparts stood no chance. Ravenous lice attacked their roots, choking off the flow of nutrients to the rest of the plant – and causing the biggest crisis in French wine history.

Lice have destroyed millions of hectares, closed vineyards and sent unemployed French people to Algeria, a French colony.

After a quarter of a century of helplessly witnessing the collapse of traditional wine culture in Europe, the best minds in the wine world have had a revelation. The cure was in the poison: American vines.

Some winegrowers grafted European vines onto resistant American rootstocks. Others have crossed American and European vines, producing what has come to be known as American hybrids, such as Jackfruit.

Faced with apparent extinction, the French wine industry has rebounded.

“It has left an impression so far,” said Thierry Lacombe, ampelographer, or vine expert, who teaches at Montpellier SupAgro, a French university specializing in agriculture. “It wasn’t the only time the Americans, our American friends, came to save the French.

The French wine world is divided between supporters of grafting and hybrid grape varieties.

The grafters continued to produce wine from pinot, merlot, cabernet sauvignon and other classic European grape varieties. American hybrids, they often said, smelled like fox urine.

Yet American hybrids flourished throughout France. More robust and easier to grow, they were particularly appreciated in rural areas such as the Cévennes. Families planted them on hills where other crops were impossible to grow. They let them grow above the arbors, growing potatoes underneath, in order to make every inch of the soil productive. The villagers harvested and made wine together, using a common cellar.

If pinot noir is part of Burgundy’s identity, jacquez is now part of the folklore of the northern Cévennes, including the village of Beaumont.

And in the southern Cévennes, the clinton (pronounced clain-ton) reigned.

“Here, if you serve a glass of clinton in any bar, people are going to pounce on it,” said Mr. Sunt, 70, a retired ranger. “If Clinton were to become legal again, I can tell you that if a winemaker wrote Clinton on his bottle, he would sell 10 times more than if he wrote Syrah or Cabernet Sauvignon.

Today, American grape varieties represent only a tiny percentage of all French wines. But with grafting and hybrids, production exploded across the country at the turn of the last century. Algeria has also become a major exporter of wine to mainland France.

With France inundated with wine, lawmakers urgently solved the problem around Christmas in 1934. To reduce overproduction, they banned all six American vines – including hybrids like jackfruit and pure American grapes like l ‘isabelle – mainly on the grounds that they produced mediocre wine. Production for private consumption would be tolerated, but not for commercial sale.

The government had planned to continue by banning other hybrids, but stopped due to the backlash from the original ban, Lacombe said. Then the war provided another reprieve.

It wasn’t until the 1950s – when hybrids were still grown on a third of all French vineyards – that the government really started cracking down on the six banned varietals, Lacombe said. He offered incentives to uproot the offending vines, then threatened the producers with fines.

He then condemned American grapes as harmful to the body and mental health with “not quite honest” arguments in an attempt to appease a situation that eluded the government, “Lacombe said.

“In fact, the current defenders of these vines are right to point out all the historical and governmental inconsistencies,” he added.

The clinton and the jacquez would perhaps have known a quiet death had it not been for a return to earth movement which, from the 1970s, brought people like Mr. Garnier to the Cévennes.

Originally from northeastern France, Mr Garnier, now 68, was once a long-haired high school student who traveled to see Jimi Hendrix, The Who and Janis Joplin perform in concert. Half a century later, he happily remembers how he avoided compulsory military service after just seven hours on a base during which he asked to see a psychologist, refused to eat with others, and was generally annoying.

A week after his release, the aimless hitchhiking brings him in 1973 to the village of Beaumont in the Cévennes where he immediately decides to buy an abandoned property by paying for it mainly by repairing the roofs of the region and of elsewhere.

A few years later, he almost accidentally started winemaking. Two elderly brothers asked him to harvest their Jackfruit grapes in exchange for half of the wine production. He learns the history of forbidden vines and ends up buying the vines of the brothers.

Today, he produces 3,400 bottles per year of his very colorful and fruity “Cuvée des vignes d’Antan”, or wine from the vines of yesteryear. He circumvented the ban by creating a cultural, non-commercial association, ”Memory of the vine. “A membership fee of 10 euros, or about $ 12, gives a bottle.

With the growing threat of climate change and the backlash against pesticide use, Garnier hopes banned grapes will be legalized and the French wine industry will open up to a new generation of hybrids – like Germany, Switzerland and other European nations already have.

“France is a great wine country,” he said. “To remain one, we have to open up. We cannot get stuck on what we already know.

Léontine Welsh contributed reports.

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Newsrust - US Top News: For France, American vines are always synonymous with sour grapes
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