Forbidden, these grape varieties? These rebellious winegrowers don't care.

The New York Times translated a selection of its best articles into French. Find them here. BEAUMONT, France – These vines were once do...


The New York Times translated a selection of its best articles into French. Find them here.

BEAUMONT, France – These vines were once doomed to bemoan and believed to drive mad or blind. Banned decades ago, the French authorities, with large reinforcements of money and sanctions, had practically eradicated them.

However, they are there. On the hillside, near a windswept mountain road in this isolated corner of the south of France, the forbidden grape flourishes. Evening is about to fall and Hervé Garnier, upon inspection of his plot, is reassured.

In April of this year, a late frost hit affected national wine production in France. But Mr. Garnier’s grapes – an American hybrid variety named Jacquez, banned in France in 1934 – slowly turned red. Barring another cold snap at the dawn of fall, the new vintage seems to be on the right track.

“There is really no reason to ban it”, protests the winegrower. ”Prohibited? I want to understand why, and when you see that the ban is on nothing. ”

Mr. Garnier is one of the latest arrivals in a long-standing fight against the French wine authorities and their allies in Paris. The French government has been trying for 87 years to uproot Jacquez and five other American grape varieties from French terroirs, claiming in turn that they pose a danger to physical and mental health – and claiming by the way, they produce only mediocre wines.

However, in recent years, it is thanks to these American varieties, very resistant, that rebellious winegrowers such as Hervé Garnier have managed to hold on in the context of climate change, while the latter is wreaking havoc on European vineyards. The growing popularity of natural wines made without pesticides is also working in their favor.

The use of pesticides has grown steadily over the past ten years, despite France’s commitment in 2008 to halve their use. In 2019, while they represented just over 4% of the hexagonal agricultural area, the vineyards of France concentrated 15% of all pesticides used nationally, according to the Ministry of Agriculture.

“ These grape varieties allow for abundant harvests, without irrigation, without fertilizer and without treatment, ” explains Christian Sunt, member of Forgotten fruits, an organization working to legalize the American grape variety. “These grape varieties are ideal for making natural wine,” he enthuses, pointing to plants of prohibited varieties, including the Clinton and Isabelle grape varieties, grown in a vineyard in the south of the Cévennes.

American grape varieties have long played a central role in the tumultuous and passionate history of France and the United States around wine. They were considered then in turn a threat, a hope for French production.

It all started in the mid-1800s with the importation into Europe of vines from the United States. An aphid had taken advantage of the trip, known as phylloxera. It was a scourge to which the American vines were directed, but for their European counterparts it was another matter. The vermin began to devour their roots voraciously, stopping the supply of nutrients to the rest of the vine – and triggering the most acute crisis that French wine has ever known.

The phylloxera devastated millions of hectares of vines, marked the death sentence for a number of vineyard operations and pushed unemployed French people to Algeria, at the time a French colony.

After a quarter of a century spent helplessly undergoing the collapse of traditional wine culture in Europe, the cream of the wine world had a revelation. The remedy is found in the poison: the Americans.

Some winegrowers grafted European vines onto American rootstocks that they knew to be resistant. Others crossed American and European grape varieties, obtaining what has come to be known as American hybrids, such as Jacquez.

After coming close to an inevitable extinction, the French wine industry is rebounding.

“It will have an imprint until today,” says Thierry Lacombe, an ampelographer – or grape variety expert – who teaches at the Montpellier SupAgro institute of agronomy. “This is not the only time that the Americans, our American friends, have come to save the French.”

The French wine-growing world split between supporters of grafting and supporters of hybrid grape varieties.

The grafters continued to produce wines from Pinots, Merlots, Cabernets Sauvignon and other classic European grape varieties. To them, American hybrids smell like fox urine.

The cultivation of American hybrids continues throughout France. More robust, easier to cultivate, they were particularly appreciated in rural areas such as the Cévennes. They were planted on the hillside, where other crops did not take. We grew them on arbors and planted potatoes underneath to optimize every square inch of soil. The villagers manage the harvest and the wine together by pooling a cellar.

If Pinot noir is part of Burgundy’s identity, Jacquez has joined the folklore of the northern Cévennes, as in the village of Beaumont.

As for the southern Cévennes, it is the Clinton that reigns supreme there.

“Here you serve a glass of Clinton at any bar, people will jump on it,” laughs Mr. Sunt, a retired 70-year-old ranger. “If Clinton were to become legal again, I can tell you that a winemaker, he would write on his bottle ‘Clinton’, he would sell 10 times more than if he branded ‘Syrah’ or ‘Cabernet Sauvignon’.”

If American grape varieties now represent only a tiny percentage of all French wines, at the beginning of the last century, grafting and hybrids had resulted in an explosion in national production. Algeria has also become a major exporter of wines to mainland France.

Wine was flowing in France, so much so that around Christmas 1934, emergencies took emergency measures to resolve the problem. To reduce overproduction, they banned all six American grape varieties – including hybrid varieties like Jacquez and pure American grape varieties like Isabelle – mainly on the grounds that mediocre wines result from them. Production for personal consumption would be tolerated, but not for commercial purposes.

The government had considered banning other hybrids before changing its mind in the face of hostility triggered by the initial ban, says Lacombe, the grape expert. Then the war provided another reprieve.

It wasn’t until the 1950s, when hybrid varieties still affected a third of all French vineyards, that the government really started cracking down on the six banned grape varieties, he explains. He began with incentives to uproot the offending vines, before moving on to threats of fines for recalcitrant winegrowers.

He then decreed that American grapes were harmful to the body and to mental health, with “ not really honest arguments in an attempt to appease a situation that [lui] escaped, ” according to Mr. Lacombe.

“The current defenders of these grape varieties, in fact, they are right to point out all the historical inconsistencies and administrative inconsistencies,” he observes.

The Clinton le Jacquez could have disappeared in general indifference if it had not been for the neorural movement which, from the 1970s, led people like Hervé Garnier to settle in the Cévennes.

Originally from northeastern France, this now 68-year-old man is a long-haired ex-high school student who made long trips to see Jimmy Hendrix, The Who and Janis Joplin on stage. Half a century later, he remembers with glee how in 1973 he avoided compulsory military service, spending only seven hours on a military base during which he demanded to see a psychologist, refused to eat with others, and left. behaved unbearably.

A week after being reformed, he failed in hitchhiking in the village of Beaumont in the Cévennes. He immediately decides to buy an abandoned property which he will pay for mainly by repairing roofs in the area and elsewhere.

A few years later, he launched into wine almost by chance. Two elderly brothers asked him to harvest their Jacquez raisins in exchange for half of the production. He discovers the history of forbidden vines and ends up buying them back.

Today, he produces 3,400 bottles per year of his “Cuvée des vignes d’antan”, very colorful and fruity. He circumvented the ban by creating the association Memory of the vine. The 10 euros contribution is rewarded with a bottle.

With the growing threat of climate change and the rejection of pesticides, Mr. Garnier hopes that banned raisins will be legalized and that the French wine industry will open up to a new generation of hybrids, as is already the case in Germany, Switzerland and other European nations.

“France was a great country for wine,” he recalls. To stay that way, now is the time to open up. We must not block on the gains. ”

Léontine Gallois contributed to this report.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Forbidden, these grape varieties? These rebellious winegrowers don't care.
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