Introduction

In April 2016 readers in France and abroad were shocked to see photos of Spanish tankers holding hundreds of gallons of red wine with their product spilled out all over roadways near the Franco-Spanish border. The scenes had been caused by French winemakers who had intercepted the trucks and had released the liquid cargo in protest at the entry of cheaper Spanish wine into France in a manner which would impact on the livelihoods of French viticulturists.[1]

Perhaps they shouldn’t have been so surprised though. After all, the region in which this occurred in southern France, the Languedoc areas stretching from the south-eastern border along the Pyrenees and north and east towards the River Rhone, has a long tradition of fractious farmers anxious to defend their careers as winemakers. This was most keenly demonstrated during the Languedoc wine revolt of 1907.

The Languedoc Wine Industry

The Languedoc region has a long tradition of viticulture in France. Efforts to develop an industry here date back as far as the Romans. Yet the Languedoc was always overshadowed by more prominent production regions to the north in Bordeaux, the Gironde, the Rhone Valley, Burgundy and Champagne.

LANGUEDOC WINE REGION

Languedoc Wine Region

This, though, began to change in the second half of the seventeenth century when the original Canal du Midi connecting the Mediterranean Sea with the River Garonne was first initiated, allowing maritime travel between the Mediterranean Sea and the Bay of Biscay for small boats and stimulating the economy of the Languedoc region through which the canal passed.

As this occurred, the acreage of land under grape cultivation in the Languedoc increased considerably, with the town of Beziers, in particular, and the surrounding countryside becoming a hub of winemaking. While it would never be able to challenge Bordeaux or Burgundy in terms of the reputation of its product, the Languedoc had consequently become a significant wine-producing region by the nineteenth century and many people in the area relied on the industry for their livelihoods.[2]

The Phylloxera Blight and Other Crises

The Languedoc Wine Revolt of 1907 was the culmination of a half a century of crises which beset the French wine industry. Many of these were caused by diseases which affected the grapes in France’s vineyards. Some of these were difficult to deal with, notably downy mildew.

Yet none was as devastating for French viticulture as the phylloxera epidemic. This began in the 1860s as entire vineyards across France were decimated following the introduction of an invasive species of aphid from North America. Over the next decade the country’s wine production fell precipitously.

Eventually teams of dedicated agronomists, ampelographers and viticulturists working at research institutions such as that at Montpellier and in North America came up with a solution to the phylloxera blight whereby American root stocks could be grafted onto French grapevines to prevent the aphids from destroying them.

Nevertheless, by the time the blight came to an end in the 1880s and 1890s, the economies of many wine-producing regions such as the Languedoc had been devastated. Moreover, the last decades of the nineteenth century had also seen the rise of poor quality wine to substitute for the lack of good quality French vintage, with raisin-wine and other adulterated, high sugar wines being produced to mask the poor quality of the grapes being used. All of these factors would contribute to the unrest in the Languedoc in the 1900s.[3]

The Outbreak of the Revolt

The first signs of the revolt which would occur in 1907 were actually seen in the mid-1890s when winemakers from the Languedoc region protested in Beziers and other towns about the flooding of the market with highly sugared wines, wines made from imported grapes and wines made from other fruit. Customs duties on wine were also criticised. These were the same reasons which lay behind the revolt in 1907.

To compound matters the 1890s and 1900s saw the rise of socialist and communist politics in southern France. Many of the leaders of these movements urged the development of wine co-operatives whereby the viticulturists of the Languedoc could collectively bargain for higher prices for their product.

These grievances all culminated early in 1907 in the outbreak of social unrest in the Languedoc. The immediate spark of the conflict was the dramatic increase in the 1900s into the south of France of wine being produced by the French colonial community in Algeria. This combined with the other issues which had arisen since the nineteenth century was leading to a rapid deflation of the market in the Languedoc and many viticultural workers were losing their employment and livelihoods.[4]

The revolt began in February 1907 as a tax strike was initiated. Then a leader of the opposition in the shape of Marcelin Albert sent a missive to Georges Clemenceau, the Prime Minister of France, outlining the grievances of the winemakers of the Languedoc.

On the 11th of March 1907 a large gathering of interested parties took place in the village of Argeliers, whereat a committee was formed to oversee the organisation of the region’s winemakers and to hold mass protests every Sunday to object to the many policies which had led to the decline of the Languedoc wine trade.[5]

Mass Protests

Mass protests soon followed. For instance, on the 31st of March 600 demonstrators took to the streets of Bize-Minervois, but the numbers attending soon increased. At a meeting at Coursan in mid-April some 5,000 people attended. By the end of April a protest rally at Lézignan-Corbieres was supported by somewhere between 20,000 and 25,000 people.

Yet all of these were eclipsed by the rally which was held in the town of Beziers, the heart of the Languedoc wine industry, on the 12th of May 1907. At this some 150,000 people were believed to have taken to the streets of the French town in protest at government policies. More still might have attended except the trains were full to capacity and could not bring everybody to the region that had sought to protest.

Even higher numbers were reported when protests were held at Perpignan, Carcassonne and Nimes on the 19th of May, the 26th of May and the 2nd of June. Nearly 200,000 people are believed to have congregated in Perpignan, while an average of a quarter of a million people were at the demonstrations in Carcassonne and Nimes.[6]

Resolution of a Kind

Matters reached a crescendo on the 9th of June 1907 when between 600,000 and 800,000 people converged on Montpellier to protest against the introduction of foreign wines into France and the proliferation of adulterated wines. Here socialist fervour combined with agricultural malaise to lead to a highly tense atmosphere as the threat of the protestors taking over large parts of southern France emerged.

It was in this context that the central government in Paris decided to act. Clemenceau ordered 34 regiments of troops consisting of 25,000 infantry and 8,000 cavalry southwards to the Languedoc and Midi region to impose order in the main towns. In mid-to-late June several of the leaders of the revolt who had been made members of the steering committee at Argeliers back in March were arrested.

Opposition mounted and the second half of June saw efforts to prevent the French armed forces from entering towns like Narbonne. Meanwhile attacks on municipal buildings in cities like Montpellier and Perpignan by the rebels increased. Matters were not helped when one brigade of the French troops mutinied and effectively joined the revolt.

Eventually calmer heads prevailed and on the 22nd of June Marcelin Albert arrived to Paris and began negotiations with Clemenceau to resolve the revolt. There they agreed to a number of resolutions. Legislation would be passed to address many of the grievances of the rebels in the Languedoc and Midi, notably to cut down on foreign imports and to suppress the widespread production of adulterated wines made with large amounts of sugar or fruits other than grapes. With that in hand, Albert made his way quickly back to southern France to quell the unrest.[7]

Conclusion

The Languedoc Wine Revolt fizzled out in the late summer and early autumn of 1907 as the promised legislation was introduced in Paris and the protests and demonstrations eased in the cities and towns of the south. The leaders of the conflict who had been arrested in June were released on the 2nd of August in a conciliatory gesture.

Thereafter matters began to ameliorate more slowly. While the legislation which was introduced in 1907 did make some dent on the problems which had been raised by winemakers in Beziers and elsewhere, wine imports and the production of sugared wines remained problems to a considerable extent for many years to come.

In reality the Languedoc crisis pointed towards a greater problem in the viticulture of southern France, namely overproduction of grapes and wine. It was only when this was fully engaged with and the amount of land given over to vineyards was reduced in the mid-twentieth century that the resentments of the winemakers of the Languedoc fully began to resolve.

Text Box 1 – French Wine Regions in the Nineteenth Century

A large aspect of the Languedoc Wine Revolt of 1907 was the manner in which certain French wine regions had become prioritised over others in the course of the nineteenth century. In particular, there was an overt dominance of the market by wines produced in three regions: Burgundy, Bordeaux and Champagne. These three regions were able to command much higher prices for their product and often for wines which people from regions such as the Languedoc and the Midi knew to be of no real greater quality than the wines being produced in other provinces of the country. Moreover, while the more northerly regions were protected to a large extent from competition from foreign imports and had the Parisian wine market open to them as a virtual monopoly, the Languedoc had to deal with growing competition from imports from Spain, Italy and Algeria, all of which it was most in proximity to.[8]

Further Reading:

Joseph Bohling, The Sober Revolution: Appellation Wine and the Transformation of France (Cornell, 2018).

Laurence McFalls, ‘Gros Rouge, Rugby, and the Rose: Explaining Ideological Change in Viticultural Languedoc’, in French Politics and Society, Vol. 8, No. 2 (Spring, 1990), pp. 24–38.

Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006).

Andrew W. M. Smith, Terror and Terroir: The Winegrowers of the Languedoc and Modern France (Manchester, 2016).

J. Harvey Smith, ‘Agricultural Workers and the French Wine-Growers’ Revolt of 1907’, in Past & Present, No. 79 (May, 1978), pp. 101–125.

On this Day

18 February 1907 – On in this day in 1907 a viticultural farmer from the Languedoc region of southern France by the name of Marcelin Albert sent a telegram to the Prime Minister of France, Georges Clemenceau, outlining the escalating grievances of the winemakers of the Languedoc region and the Midi. For decades France’s winemakers had been hit by a number of crises which included the phylloxera blight and the appearance of adulterated wines made from sugar and different fruits. To compound matters, in the Languedoc winemakers had to contend with high levels of importation of foreign wines from Spain, Italy and Algeria. The telegram called for redress, but none was forthcoming in the short term and in the late spring and early summer huge protests would occur in the major cities of southern France and eventually violence, so much so that the events of 1907 have become known as the Languedoc Wine Revolt.[9]

9 June 1907 – On this day in 1907 an enormous protest and gathering in the southern French city of Montpellier, estimated to have been attended by somewhere between 600,000 and 800,000 people, marked the high point of the Languedoc Wine Revolt of 1907 in France. This had started months earlier as winemakers from the region began protesting about the importation of foreign wines and the flooding of the market with adulterated wines made from high levels of sugar and fruits other than grapes, all issues which were undermining the Languedoc wine industry. The protest at Montpellier was at the end of two months of Sunday protests in southern French towns such as Beziers, Carcassonne and Perpignan. Some violence was seen in Montpellier and it was the cue for the French government to send over nearly 30,000 troops into the region to suppress the revolt. This was duly accomplished in the autumn through a mixture of conciliation and negotiation, with the government in Paris promising legislation to cut down on the proliferation of adulterated wine across France.[10]

References

[1] Liz Alderman, ‘Wine War in Southern France Has Streets Running Red’, The New York Times, 25 August 2017.

[2] ‘Languedoc’, in Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006).

[3] George Gale, Dying on the Vine: How Phylloxera Transformed Wine (Berkeley, California, 2011).

[4] Laura Levine Frader, Peasants and Protest: Agricultural Workers, Politics and Unions in the Aude, 1850–1914 (Berkeley, California, 1991), chapter 7.

[5] J. Harvey Smith, ‘Agricultural Workers and the French Wine-Growers’ Revolt of 1907’, in Past & Present, No. 79 (May, 1978), pp. 101–125.

[6] Laurence McFalls, ‘Gros Rouge, Rugby, and the Rose: Explaining Ideological Change in Viticultural Languedoc’, in French Politics and Society, Vol. 8, No. 2 (Spring, 1990), pp. 24–38.

[7] J. Harvey Smith, ‘Agricultural Workers and the French Wine-Growers’ Revolt of 1907’, in Past & Present, No. 79 (May, 1978), pp. 101–125.

[8] Rod Phillips, French Wine: A History (Berkeley, California, 2016), chapters 5 and 6.

[9] Laurence McFalls, ‘Gros Rouge, Rugby, and the Rose: Explaining Ideological Change in Viticultural Languedoc’, in French Politics and Society, Vol. 8, No. 2 (Spring, 1990), pp. 24–38; J. Harvey Smith, ‘Agricultural Workers and the French Wine-Growers’ Revolt of 1907’, in Past & Present, No. 79 (May, 1978), pp. 101–125.

[10] Laurence McFalls, ‘Gros Rouge, Rugby, and the Rose: Explaining Ideological Change in Viticultural Languedoc’, in French Politics and Society, Vol. 8, No. 2 (Spring, 1990), pp. 24–38; J. Harvey Smith, ‘Agricultural Workers and the French Wine-Growers’ Revolt of 1907’, in Past & Present, No. 79 (May, 1978), pp. 101–125.

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Categories: This Day in Wine History | ArticlesBy Published On: February 29, 2024Last Updated: February 29, 2024

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