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Why do France's winemakers want to destroy their vineyards?

A spilled bottle of wine
A spilled bottle of wine Copyright Canva
Copyright Canva
By Saskia O'Donoghue
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Red wine consumption is at an all-time low in France. The government and winemakers have come up with a destructive solution to the problem of overproduction.

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The French government is planning to spend millions of euros to help winemakers. The winemakers demanded help to destroy vines and turn unsold stock into industrial alcohol, a call they say was necessary to save their livelihoods.

Vineyard owners in the Bordeaux region say sales and, as a knock-on effect, prices have plummeted due to overproduction and altered drinking habits.

Wine drinking across France is thought to have dropped by two-thirds in the last 60 years - and red wines have been particularly affected. White and rose wine have been less badly hit, with declines of only around three and four per cent respectively.

The reason for the decline in red wine drinking was addressed in a survey conducted by media conglomerate RTL last year. It found that the consumption of red wine had plunged by 32% in the last decade, mainly among the 18-35 age group.

The survey revealed the decline’s main causes were people eating less red meat, fewer families dining together, and an increase in single parent households, made up of adults who choose not to drink alone.

Alcohol abstinence

Alcohol-free drinks were also blamed - France is one of the fastest growing markets for the beverages amid a global boom.

It’s also the world’s second-largest wine producer, after Italy, and has been known for decades as a nation of wine aficionados - but these habit changes have forced the government to step in.

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A vineyard in the Loire Valley, FranceCanva

Even with the slowdown of national consumption, international exports of French wine are at a record high to markets in the US and Japan. However, that success hasn't translated across the board for French wine producers. 

"Some regions have experienced a drop in demand and problems of overproduction, when for others, the harvest in small quantities did not make it possible to supply the markets," César Giron, CEO of Pernod Ricard told AFP. 

This week, France’s agriculture ministry said it would spend up to €160 million on distilling the unused wine into industrial alcohol, which will mostly be used by the country’s pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries.

Some Bordeaux winemakers have said the offer is not high enough, also calling for compensation of €10,000 per hectare of land. They say it’s necessary to uproot part of their vineyards, in order to reduce production and allow repurposing of the land for other crops. They estimate that at least 15,000 hectares of vineyards - which equates to an area approximately the size of 21,000 football pitches - need to be uprooted in order to make a difference.

The French government last helped growers with distillation in 2020, after the COVID-19 pandemic’s many lockdowns caused bars and restaurants to close their doors, as well as French wine exports to drop.

It’s estimated that about half a million people work in the wine industry in France, according to the National Interprofessional Wine Commission. They say that if the government doesn’t act fast, the industry could see a loss of up to 150,000 jobs in the next decade.

Bertrand Guay/AFP or licensors
Latvian Raimonds Tomsons poses after winning the Best Sommelier in the World 2023 contest at the La Defense Arena in Nanterre, near Paris, on February 12, 2023.Bertrand Guay/AFP or licensors

The issue comes in the wake of the Best Sommelier of the World contest which was held in Paris and wrapped up on Sunday (12 February). 68 candidates from across the globe took part in the 17th Association de la Sommellerie Internationale (ASI) competition, battling it out in 4 days of intensive theory tests, tasting and service tasks, before Latvian Raimonds Tomsons was crowned as the winner.

Despite the popularity of the contest - not to mention its hosting in the French capital - wine consumption in the country is set to drop further still. 70 years ago, French people drank around 130 litres of wine a year on average, but today that figure has dropped to around 40 litres.

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