- Friday 12 March 2004
Traditionally in the western Languedoc, grape growers who sell their crop to the local cooperative are paid on equal terms. As a result, those who contribute the least in terms of quality often enjoy the best rates when it comes to being rewarded. As a leading grower for his coop, Mont Tauch, Jean-Marc Astruc knows the consequences of this approach. He and his fellow vignerons faced financial ruin in the early 1990s.
Astruc has a simple solution: ‘If growers are paid according to the quality of their production, there is no limit as to what can be accomplished,’ he says.
As president of the Mont Tauch cooperative for the past six years, Astruc has implemented substantial change to the oldest cooperative winery in the Languedoc. Established in 1913, Mont Tauch predates the region’s first appellation by 35 years. Upwards of 350 growers work 2,000ha (hectares) of vines to produce 750,000 cases of wine each year. This single facility produces 60% of the world’s Fitou, as well as Corbières and vins de pays.
But old and big are not endearing traits in a wine world smitten by the latest garagiste. That much became evident here in 1993. ‘The cave was on the verge of bankruptcy,’ explains Katie Jones, a Leicestershire native who has worked at Mont Tauch for a decade, and is now export director. ‘It was a village coop, and its aim was simply to employ local people. We had to do something to turn things around.’
Mont Tauch first merged with the nearby Paziols coop. The economies of scale helped, but were not enough. The leadership decided to embrace drastic change. They put aside money for new winery equipment, the winemaker visited Australia for fresh insight, and a professional sales force was established.
The most significant change, however, involved the growers. The production of each would be evaluated in isolation, and everyone would stand or fall according to his own efforts.
The transformation began in 1998, when a 15-member vineyard commission was established to raise the standards of work in the field. As their first order of business, the group began to formally assess the coop’s holdings. They have since classified six soil types – from schist to colluvial chalk to rounded pudding stones – and this has permitted the identification of a handful of terroir categories. Names such as Garrigues, Pilou and Bleu spread out across a large wall map at the Mont Tauch office. It is slow work, but the research has given them a valuable understanding of the 9,000 plots.
The information is then applied through the coop’s vineyard selection scheme. This voluntary programme allows vignerons to farm individual parcels at one of five quality levels – from basic to grand vin. Each has a set of specifications covering vine age, planting density, treatments, pruning, yields, harvest dates, and countless other variables.
‘Each parcel is monitored by the cave,’ says Jérome Collas, chief viticulturalist. ‘If it is determined that a grower is not meeting the criteria, the participating parcels are declassified for the year and the standard payment applied.’
Collas adds that inspections are rigorous. ‘Between 25% and 30% of the plots are declassified each year. The grand vin category begins the season with about 80ha. By the time the harvest arrives this has fallen to just 20ha. It is very detailed, with the cave dictating to vignerons at every stage.’
But the scheme is not just about policing. Collas and his team are trying to facilitate success. Three members of his staff work in the field full time, advising growers on how to unlock the highest quality possible. ‘We used to lack any connection between the cave and the growers,’ says Collas, ‘but our viticultural service has established that link. When the vignerons understand what we are doing and why, they seek the best from their vineyards.’
Robert Agelet is one such grower. After cultivating 30ha of vines for nearly as many years, Agelet has embraced the recent changes and witnessed the benefits. His production is now a vital part of the coop’s premium wines. ‘The new Mont Tauch has helped me to understand why my job as a vigneron is not limited to simply producing grapes,’ he says. ‘I can also grow them in a way that better expresses the terroirs on my property.’
Mont Tauch has invested heavily in new equipment – spending t23 million over the past decade. The new centre is configured of 72 small vats, each with a capacity of just 500hl, so that every grower’s production can be vinified separately. The batches are then tasted blind by a committee that includes Collas, Jones, winemaker Michel Marty, three vignerons, and at least one outside winemaker. Payments to the growers are based on the results of this tasting.
It is a dramatic departure from the past, when the work of 20 growers went into a single tank. Now, each grower knows he is being assessed and paid according to his own efforts.
The official tasting results are married with the extensive technical documentation that the coop is compiling about every parcel it farms. Taken together, this information facilitates better decisions in the vineyard and winery during years to come.
The improvements are evident across the full range of Mont Tauch wines – from high-volume supermarket-brand Corbières to high-calibre expressions of Fitou limited to just 3,000 bottles. They are all cleaner, fruitier, and richer than in the past. However, it seems there is one wine that encapsulates the spirit of the new Mont Tauch.
‘Definitely Les Douze,’ says Jones. ‘The vignerons get really excited about their involvement with it.’ Marty agrees: ‘Six years ago, we would not have been capable of something like this.’
Mont Tauch started producing Les Douze when the small-batch fermentation centre began operation in 1998. The wine is AC Fitou, a bold, spicy blend of hand-harvested Carignan, Grenache and Syrah. As the name of the wine indicates, only 12 growers are selected each year to contribute to it, and all 12 get their pictures and names on the bottle.
The success of Les Douze has been followed by a more selective project, Les Quatre, with just four growers – including Agelet. Even higher up the quality ladder are wines such as L’Exception and L’Essentiel. They are Fitou, but a sleek, rich, modern expression of it.
Marty wants to make fuller use of the knowledge gained in crafting these premium wines. ‘There is a definite progression with our top-of-the-range wines,’ he says, ‘and I expect this will continue. However, we should also see significant benefits for the entry-level wines. Within 10 years, we want to be proud of every single bottle we produce.’
This is a lofty goal for any large winery, let alone an old coop. But Mont Tauch has already proven itself capable of great change.