A Taste of Distinction

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With the passage of time, margaret Thatcher has become a hazy figure of dream or nightmare, depending on your political persuasion. Cont-inental Europeans still wince at the abras-ive style she brought to E.C. negotiations.

So when a Frenchman tells you that "Mrs. Thatcher did us a favor," you naturally check that you haven't misheard. You haven't, but then this is no ordinary Frenchman. He is Jean Clavel, a winegrower and organizer of farmers' unions who has spent his career fighting against the notion that quantity was more important than quality. The Languedoc region showed how wrong that notion was by pulling off one of the most extraordinary turnarounds in winemaking history.

In most countries of northern Europe, the twin ingredients of the Industrial Revolution were coal and iron ore. In France they added a third: cheap red wine. Undistinguished plonk fueled the country's industrial workforce the way fossil fuels powered its factories. Much of it came from the Languedoc-the world's largest vineyard, stretching along 300 km of Mediterranean coastline from the Rhône to the Pyrenees-where fortunes were made supplying huge volumes to an undemanding domestic market. But tastes changed and sales fell after World War II, while Common Market agricultural subsidy policies filled Europe's notorious wine lake with unwanted production. "The situation was intolerable," Clavel recalls. "There were cooperatives getting 30% of their turnover in European subsidies for a product with no market outlet that ended up being destroyed."

Then came Thatcher's crusade against E.C. overspending. The Dublin Agreement of 1984 ended limitless subsidies and the Languedoc's winegrowers faced a stark choice: adapt or die. "They had their backs to the wall," says Christine Behey-Molines of the Interprofessional Council for Languedoc Wines. "Either they changed the entire economy of the region, or they changed the way they made wine." Encouraged by pioneers like Clavel, growers began tearing up the high-production vines that covered valley bottoms and planting renowned grape varieties like syrah (shiraz) and cabernet sauvignon on lower-yield hillside plots. Fifteen years later, the region has shed its inferiority complex along with over 100,000 hectares of vineyards. "We shouldn't be afraid of making very high-quality wines and selling them at corresponding prices," says Behey-Molines.

International sales have been the catalyst for the Languedoc's revival. At a time when France's traditional export giant Bordeaux was pricing itself out of the market, the Languedoc wooed foreign consumers with a New World combination of high-quality wines at affordable prices. And it has been able to offer something that the New World can't: wines containing a blend of grape varieties whose complex taste reflects the idiosyncracies of the French soil that produced them. "They're the opposite of varietal wines, which by nature are the same all over the world," says Clavel, who exports 97% of his production. As wine consumption takes off in new markets from North America to Japan, exports are increasing and prices are rising.

With an eye on the huge growth potential that implies, foreigners have taken to the Languedoc libation as investors as well as consumers. Mondavi, the giant of California's Napa Valley, is currently planting 50 hectares of vines to produce its own Languedoc wine. On a smaller scale, Robert and Kim Cripps are an Anglo-American couple who bought 18 hectares of vineyard near Montpellier in 1994. Today their Domaine du Poujol produces 100,000 bottles each year, 80% of them exported. "Land was dirt cheap back then, but we couldn't afford to come here now," says Robert. "We're not wealthy people. We're just two middle-class kids who wanted to do our own thing and lucked out."

Like all entrepreneurs, the Crippses have had to adapt to French regulatory constraints. The aoc (Appellation d'Origine Controlée) label that supposedly guarantees quality fixes the quantities of specified grape varieties that can be grown on limited plots of land. If you don't meet the aoc criteria, your wine must be sold as traditionally less desirable vin de pays or vin de table. "It's an example of highly restrictive French regulation that doesn't really control anything," says Robert. "If you want to sell in France you have to be aoc, but if you're selling abroad nobody cares." Pressure is mounting in the Languedoc for a revision of aoc criteria to take current markets into account. It's further proof of how modern the region has become. By adapting production to international demand, the Languedoc has brought its wine industry into the 21st century-with a new vintage more sophisticated than its 20th century precursors.