What the French like to call the guerre des vins has broken out again. Last week wine from a Spanish-registered tanker could be seen pouring on to a road in south-west France, forming a large pool the colour of blood.
Around 100 French winemakers had forced the driver to stop at the road toll point, ordered him to hand over his keys and then cheered as the red puddle swelled and ran into a ditch. Local gendarmes stood by and watched.
To the young vignerons of the Aude, who claim their livelihoods are threatened by cheap wine imports from across the border, these actions were justified, driven by despair. They say that Spain is flooding its market – particularly the boxed-wine sector – with cheap plonk, and accuse the Spanish of diluting their wine with even cheaper imports from South America.
On the Spanish side of the border there is outrage and indignation. Rafael del Rey, the head of Spain’s commercial wine trade body, the Spanish Wine Market Observatory, told the Observer: “The idea that we are mixing it with cheaper foreign imports is nonsense. Just look at the Spanish import statistics. We import very little. There’s no need to, given the huge amount of wine produced in Spain.”
He added: “Spain is the largest supplier of cheap wine to French companies, but this isn’t new. France has always needed to import foreign wines, which are later sold by French companies at higher prices to the domestic and international markets. It’s true that France imported its largest amount of Spanish wine last year, but that’s because there is a need and French companies are making big profits from it.
“Spain has a lot of production capacity and we make good wine at good prices. I can see why competitors don’t like that, but it’s life; it’s the economy. And no doubt Spain will be trying to do even more in the future.”
After the lorry hijacks last week, Spain’s foreign minister summoned the French ambassador to protest. “These events, which unfortunately occur regularly, represent a flagrant violation of several basic EU principles, such as the free circulation of goods between member states,” the foreign ministry said later. It urged France to “adopt all necessary measures to guarantee the total security and free circulation of people and goods”.
The Spanish Federation of Freight Transport accused French police of standing by allowing the protesters “to act with impunity”.
The French ministry of agriculture failed to respond to the federation’s questions, but the European Commission spokesperson on the internal market, Lucia Caudet, said it had received a complaint from the Spanish government and had asked Paris to report back on “the measures the French authorities either have already taken or plan to take”.
Frédéric Rouanet, president of the Pyrénées-Orientales winemakers’ union, who took part in the attack on the Spanish lorries, said: “If I produced the same wine that we’ve just emptied, it would be banned from sale, so I don’t see why it should be allowed into France.”
To add insult to injury, Rouanet said that French winemakers “feel humiliated” that the Tour de France has chosen a Chilean wine company as a race sponsor, and they planned to block the stage between Carcassonne and Montpellier.
It is not the first time French activists have taken direct action. Last July farmers parked tractors across several border roads to halt imports from Germany and Spain. And 40 years ago, on 4 March 1976, tragedy struck when a furious group of 3,000 winemakers from Montredon-Corbières blocked the main road in protest at imports of Italian wine. A group of riot police sent to break up the demonstration came under fire and began shooting back. Within 30 minutes a police commander and a local winemaker lay dead and 31 officers, along with dozens of protesters, were injured, many of them seriously.
Such levels of violence are out of the question in the latest bout of wine wars. But there is no doubt that the mood is ugly, as farmers complain that labour and other costs are lower in neighbouring countries, leading to unfair competition.
André Salles, who was present at the Montredon-Corbières incident four decades ago, said neither the politicians nor young winemakers should forget what happened in the last wine war: “The lives of two families were shattered; it mustn’t happen again.”
by Kim Willsher
April 9, 2016