Languedoc-Roussillon: Co-ops infuse France's last wine frontier

The sunshine was so bright that not even a pair of prescription sunglasses could cut the glare. We felt X-rayed by the laser-intense white light; it hurt the eyes just to step into the sun.

Around us, silver-green scrub searched for water in a parched landscape. We had been warned about the wild boar, so our eyes scanned for movement, but then everything was twitching in the wind.

The vegetation danced and pranced around us as if on strings. We fought to keep the clothes on our bodies and focus on the grapevines that canted like old men, to the south.

We struggled to listen to our host, who shouted and gesticulated above the roaring freight train of the Tramontane, a cold north wind that chases humidity, clears the sky of clouds and drops the temperature like a whiplash trip to winter.

We were in the Languedoc-Roussillon on a wine educator trip to learn about France's last wine frontier.

Languedoc-Roussillon boasts 1,029 organic wine producers, the highest number of certified organic wine producers in France. And many others follow those grape growing precepts but have not sought out certification. Currently, over 39,000 acres are being farmed organically (the largest area in the country) and this figure is showing significant annual growth.

This was eye-opening, especially since the word "organic" has become synonymous with "expensive" in the USA. As we discovered, in Languedoc-Roussillon, there was value at every tier in the wine quality pyramid.

How do they do it?

The co-op is a strong force within the region. Jean-Luc Trinquier, director of Clochers and Terroirs, was quick to explain why.

"The cost of working a hectare of vineyard runs 1,500-3,000 Euros. This number remains the same for a private domain as it does for the co-op member. What changes is the cost attributed to vinification. For a co-op member, the cost to vinify one hectoliter of juice is 10-12 Euros. A domain will pay three times as much to do the same thing on an individual basis."

Why? Because winery equipment is expensive and it is used once a year by one producer. A co-operative winery helps to defray these costs by splitting them among hundreds of members.

Bruno Andreu, owner and winemaker for Ch. Condamine Bertrand acknowledged the cost of being a private domain as he placed his hand against an expensive piece of machinery. "You don't make this kind of investment unless you are passionate about what you do. It's not about making money. Really. It's about making wine."

Interestingly, the cooperatives said the same thing. And, as we traveled and toured, large or small, every wine producer chanted the same mantra.

Jean-Claude Mas, owner of Domaine Mas said, "The goal [of his enterprise] is for you, the consumer to get more emotion from what you drink than what you pay."

The attitude about wine is a little different here than in other wine regions I've visited.

"Wine is culture, a story, a way of life," explained a winemaker to a group of visitors at a nearby restaurant table in Carcassonne. "It's a human experience. It is not percentage alcohol, percentage tannin, percentage sugar. You can't drink wine you love with people you hate. The wine won't taste good."

To that end, you also can't enjoy a wine, if all you can think about is how much it cost. Enter Languedoc-Rousillion, stage left.

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