In 2004 I filed a report from a visit to the enterprising Mont Tauch in Fitou, a very new kind of French 'co-op' that was breaking the mould for these mutually-owned winemaking organisation with hundreds, sometimes thousands of small farmers as members. The Co-op was, and remains, an essential part of the French wine industry, giving its members the opportunity to farm on a small scale, but with the resources of a large organisation to call on when it comes to production, marketing, distribution and management of a complex business like selling wine. Mont Tauch had modernised and thought big, creating popular brands to compete with the biggest names of the wine world. So when an invitation came in to pay a brief visit to another Languedoc co-op that was aiming high, I was intrigued to learn their story and accepted.With 1200 member growers, Les Vignobles Foncalieu is a large co-op. It is producing wines across the Languedoc including IGP Pays d'Oc, but also from individual denominations like Corbières, Minervois, St Chinian, Fitou, Cabardès, Picpoul de Pinet and Pic St Loup. They are already well-known in the UK, selling five million bottles here annually, mainly through value brands such as 'La Serre', which is imported by Bibendum Wines. But I had been told that more and more emphasis was being placed on high-end and single vineyard wines, in a programme started by Foncalieu's President Michel Bataille in 2006. Michel is pictured along with chief winemaker Delphine Glangetas. I met up with Michel over a picnic lunch by the Canal du Midi, where he told me about his vision for a "great wine programme." He knew from the start that with 1200 members, many of whom are small farmers who have been working their vineyards for generations, that there would be a battle to be won: "It was as much a political programme as a winemaking one," he says, "We had to keep everyone happy, even those not selected for this new programme." Persuading everyone that this very small part of their huge operation was worth doing was a struggle, but apparently its success has meant everyone is now on board, "and very proud to be selected," adds Michel. The programme began in the vineyards, where improving quality does not happen overnight. Michel says it took "a couple of years," to achieve the required quality. There is much tighter control of when varieties are harvested, plot by plot, and much more precise viticulture across the whole company. Planting for the 'great wines' programme is dense at 4,000 plants per hectare and yields are controlled through shoot thinning and canopy management, bunches are removed at veraison (colour change) to leave only six bunches per vine and are aerated by leaf removal throughout the season. Harvesting is by machine, but grapes are sorted in the vineyard before being sent to a special winery built in 2007. The top vineyards are ploughed for weed control, with no spraying of herbicides. In 2012 Foncalieu was awarded the title of Best Cooperative in France by Review des Vins de France, largely due to this great wines range. It is an extraordinary project for this massive operation: the company has an annual production of 20 million bottles, but only 2,000 bottles of their top wine, Apogée, are produced and even the entry level to the great wines range, Les Illustres, accounts for just 12,000 bottles. Michel is plain spoken about his mission: "it is to improve the earnings of our member growers," he says. "We are showing them that improving quality is the way to achieve that. It is the key." We met up with one very contented member, the enthusiastic Romain Torecilla (right), whose beautiful Syrah vineyard in the Minervois supplies the grapes for one of the great wines range, Le Lien. Romain has been a wine grower for 15 years, taking over from his father - he is 5th generation farming here. On a high hillside between the Pyrenees and Montagnes Noirs, there is a blend of Atlantic and Mediterranean climatic influences he says, the slopes benefitting from cooling winds from the Atlantic north. The Syrah, planted in the 1980s by Romain's father, enjoys very favourable aspect on various slopes, and poor soils give concentration. Romain explains that he has to follow a strict specification to earn his place in the prestige wines programme, carrying out all of the procedures outlined above in his two hectares of Syrah, which eventually yields only 15 hectolitres per hectare. Later, Michel tells me that Foncalieu is now becoming a brand in its own right, and not just "a collection of brands that were basically anonymous." The Foncalieu name is now boldly displayed on the labels of their bottles. "The origin is not hidden," he says, which was the practice of the large coops in the past (and for many, in the present). These 'great wines' are extremely good, and bringing all 1200 members along on this journey is certainly a notable achievement. Having the confidence to put the name on the labels seems a logical and very suitable move. Foncalieu certainly seems to be a model modern cooperative, that as well as producing the big volumes of entry level wines to accommodate their large family of growers, recognises the potential benefits of getting the Foncalieu name in front of fine wine drinkers too.
|for tasting notes on 14 wines from Les Vignobles Foncalieu|