Inside the Bordeaux wineries abandoning their grapes for grains

Chateau Des Arras is home to 19 hectares of family-owned vineyards
Chateau Des Arras has been home to 19 hectares of family-owned vineyards, but now Marie-Caroline Rozier, pictured with sister Anne-Cecile, has decided to give up - CHATEAU DES ARRAS/FACEBOOK

At the Chateau Des Arras, scars of a hailstorm are still visible.

Holes the size of cricket balls leave jagged silhouettes in the top-floor windows. Nearby, a rumpled piece of tarpaulin covers a section of broken roof.

Such storms are not uncommon in this part of France but the one of 2022 was particularly ferocious, raining down destruction on the family-owned vineyard and its 15th-century building.

“We lost everything. The roof, the windows. All the grapes were destroyed,” said owner Marie-Caroline Rozier.

But it’s not just hailstones plaguing Marie-Caroline’s vineyard.

“Stupid” EU rules, overproduction and dwindling consumption, increasingly “extreme” weather events linked to climate change and falling custom from China are all taking their toll.

Ms Rozier will clear the majority of her vines to cut down on wine production
Ms Rozier will clear the majority of her vines to cut down on wine production

Some winemakers like Marie-Caroline are ripping up old vines and planting alternatives, while many more have joined the recent tractor protests strangling Europe.

After 10 years running the estate, Marie-Caroline says she is “exhausted”. Last year, her sister, who was co-running the estate with her, quit. And now she will too.

“After [the hailstorm] I put all the figures on my desk, counted all the costs and I decided to stop,” she said from her office inside the 11-bedroom stone building. A scarf is wrapped tightly around her neck and she rubs her hands to keep warm.

“We reached a point where we couldn’t spend more hours on the business. We gave it our best and we were actually destroying ourselves.”

“When you work every day and every five minutes you see your product destroyed. Honestly, psychologically, it’s super hard,” she said.

The chateau and its 19-hectare estate have sustained four generations of the Rozier family. At one point it would have had 10 staff; now it’s just Marie-Caroline.

The Chateau Des Arras, which has been in the Rozier family for four generations
The Chateau Des Arras has been in the Rozier family for four generations - GEORGE STYLLIS

Bordeaux is one of the largest wine producing regions of France and home to some of the most exclusive estates, whose vintages can sell for thousands at auction.

It is also where the problems to befall the industry are most apparent.

In one of Ms Rozier’s fields, several hectares have already been cleared to make way for another crop – probably cereal. She will keep just five hectares of vines, to produce small batches of wine and for those Instagrammable shots when the venue is hired for functions.

Many others estates are facing similar tough choices.

In Bordeaux, one in three winemakers have sunk into financial peril, according to the local farmers’ association.

The main reasons are an oversupply of wine and low prices, but the region’s problems go back decades, when changing tastes and foreign competition started to rock Bordeaux’s once unassailable position in the world.

Having gained a reputation for being expensive, heavy and old fashioned, Bordeaux was losing drinkers to newcomers like Australia and Chile.

In the 1990s, China threw the industry a lifeline as it developed a taste for fine wines. In the 2000s, when Europe underwent its last wine glut, winemakers replanted uprooted vines years later to continue supplying the Chinese.

Vineyards in Gascony, France
The French government has encouraged wineries in Bordeaux to clear 9500 hectares of vines - ANTON PETRUS/MOMENT RF

In hindsight, it reflected the “stupid system” of the EU to pay winemakers to take out their vines with no conditions not to replant them, said Lydia Coudert, head of sales at the Coudert vineyard.

The rude awakening came when China’s consumption of Bordeaux began to fall in 2017, and since Covid and the slowdown of its economy, demand has dropped massively. Though still the biggest importer of Bordeaux, China saw its imported volume drop 54 per cent in the five years to 2022.

Compounding the problem has also been a US tax of 25 per cent on European goods levied by then-president Donald Trump in 2019, and disruptions caused by Brexit.

Meanwhile, at home, the French have become more partial to a beer or cocktail than wine. According to Christophe Chateau of the Bordeaux wine council, the average French person now drinks 40 litres of wine a year – or roughly half a bottle of wine a week – compared with 150 litres in the 1950s.

As a result, winemakers across France say they are losing money and either scaling down or closing, with many recently joining farmers to protest against high costs, taxes and EU red tape.

“Our strategy now will be to produce less wine,” said Mr Chateau.

To that end, the French government has disbursed €200 million (£171 million) to all vineyards to destroy their wine and €57 million to those in Bordeaux to clear 9500 hectares of vines. The agriculture ministry also announced at the start of February an €80 million (£68 million) emergency fund to help winegrowers.

Unlike in the 2000s, recipients of the uprooting fund are prevented from replanting vines.

While that’s sensible, said Ms Coudert, the compensation for uprooting has gone down from €10,000 per hectare to €6,000 despite the crisis being “much worse”.

Chateau Des Arras will retain some of its vines mostly for aesthetic reasons
Chateau Des Arras will retain some of its vines mostly for aesthetic reasons - CHATEAU DES ARRAS/FACEBOOK

Many winemakers say the government is out of touch with them and doesn’t realise that growing a new crop, such as olives, or rearing livestock without prior experience, is not easy or a failsafe option. Nor is it attractive, they say, to leave their land idle for 20 years as another option for funding.

Rather than telling vineyards to destroy their business, the government should better promote Bordeaux’s wines and its environmental strides over the years, said Ms Coudert, who will uproot 10 hectares on her estate and plant a mixture of trees and another crop, but is undecided on which.

Such sentiment was echoed by participants of Wine Paris-Vinexpo, France’s biggest wine salon, that opened in the French capital on Monday.

“The global cake is shrinking, and market share is becoming more and more expensive”, said chief organiser Rodolphe Lameyse. Innovation and moving upmarket are the buzzwords, but “not everyone has the ability to do one or the other”, he told AFP.

It’s not doom and gloom everywhere; Champagne and Burgundy are still doing well and Premium and super-premium wines are not in decline, noted Michel Chapoutier, president of the national wine merchants’ union (UMVin).

“The new generations are drinking beverages straight from the fridge or sparkling wines,” he added. Low or no alcohol wines are also making inroads, with 50 per cent more exhibitors in that category compared to last year.

It is “entry-level wines that have no takers”.

Ms Coudert believes Bordeaux will experience a resurgence as the French turn to better wines. But it might take up to three years to clear the backlog of stock and for the market to adjust.

Many will not be able to wait that long.

“As farmers you can suffer, suffer, suffer for a very long time but at some point you will explode,” she said.

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