France struggles with wine surplus

France struggles with wine surplus

Goverment to turn millions of litres into industrial alcohol as consumption falls and cellars fill up

A worker picks grapes at the Chateau Haut-Brion vineyard in Pessac, near Bordeaux, France in 2019. (Reuters File Photo)
A worker picks grapes at the Chateau Haut-Brion vineyard in Pessac, near Bordeaux, France in 2019. (Reuters File Photo)

PARIS: France plans to spend millions of euros to turn wine into industrial alcohol for pharmaceuticals and cosmetics to drain a massive surplus, the agriculture ministry has said.

Growers in the southwest region of Bordeaux say overproduction and a drop in domestic consumption of their more affordable brands have filled up their cellars and left them with nowhere to store the fruits of their next harvest.

The agriculture ministry said on Monday that it would spend up to 160 million euros ($170 million) on distilling the tipple into industrial alcohol to use up some of the backlog.

In Bordeaux, winemaker Didier Cousiney said the amount was only enough to help each small business for just a couple of months when spread across the industry nationwide.

We have “24 months’ worth of backlog in our cellars”, he said.

Agriculture unions in the Bordeaux region, which have staged several protests, instead want compensation in exchange for uprooting part of their vineyards, a practice known as “grubbing up” the land.

This would help reduce production, and allow wine growers to repurpose the land for other activities.

Cousiney and fellow growers estimate that at least 15,000 hectares of vineyards — an area equivalent to 21,000 football pitches — need to be grubbed up across the region to make a difference.

They are requesting compensation of 10,000 euros per hectare.

The government last sponsored distillation in 2020, after worldwide Covid-19 lockdowns caused restaurants and bars to close, and French wine exports to drop.

France is the world’s second-largest wine producer after Italy. Around half a million people are estimated to work in the industry, according to the National Interprofessional Wine Commission.

If nothing is done, “we fear between 100,000 and 150,000 jobs will be threatened in the coming decade”, commission head Bernard Farges warned in December.

Red wine sales in French supermarkets dropped 15% last year, according to the country’s General Association for Wine Production.

White and rose wine were less affected, registering declines of around three and four percent.

Jerome Despey, a winegrower and secretary-general of the agriculture union FNSEA, said this reflected a broader trend.

French people used to drink around 130 litres of wine on average a year 70 years ago, he said, but today that has dropped to around 40 litres.

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