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French co-operative ready to compete

Felicity Murray reports on the remarkable results of an ambitious and initially politically difficult project for a wine co-operative

Six years ago, Michel Bataille, president of the wine co-operative Les Vignobles Foncalieu – recently voted the Best Co-operative in France by a French wine magazine – embarked upon a massive investment programme to produce a prestige range of Grand Vins.

Today, these wines, produced in a dedicated winery from grapes from a few selected plots, are ready to compete on the international market. They will be promoted at forthcoming wine fairs as well as entered into major competitions. Foncalieu has invested in the image and branding of the range, creating a unified look with a stylish label that, for the first time, bears the co-operative’s name.

Les Vignobles Foncalieu, the oldest and first co-operative in France, was founded in 1967 and became a Union of Cooperatives in 1992. It has 1,200 winegrowers who share their experience and expertise to help each other produce high quality wines. Of the 19 million bottles sold annually, 80% are exported to 41 countries, with the UK taking as much as 40%. The production of the Grand Vins range is a small percentage of this but the co-op’s mission is to reward these grape growers for their efforts in producing quality over quantity.

Les Vignobles Foncalieu is located in the original building of the Vignerons Libres de Maraussa’, the first cooperative winery in France, founded in 1901.
Les Vignobles Foncalieu is the only union of cooperatives with a presence in all of the winemaking departments of the Grand Sud region, stretching from Gascony to Languedoc-Roussillon, from the Côtes-du-Rhône to Provence. With 7,000 hectares under vine, they are the biggest collective landholder in the South of France, and the only group to offer such a diverse range of wines. Their strategy of dynamic growth has led them to expand their territory from Gascony, with the Domaine de Cambos, to the Coteaux d’Aix thanks to the recent addition of the Vignerons de Rognes. With the arrival of Cave Victor Contis and the Vignerons de Saint-Gervais, they have also gained a foothold in the Côtes-du-Rhône appellation.

Les Vignobles Foncalieu has operated with complete independence since 1967, guaranteeing the best interests of its members. Collectively they enjoy complete control over the entire winemaking process. Listening to the precise needs of customers throughout different markets, they can fine-tune the process to their customers’ specific requirements. Computer-assisted monitoring of each plot of land, sampling of key blocks and highly precise planning of harvests allows for a unique level of quality control.

We have always promoted a New World attitude. One of our principal members is ‘Les Celliers du Nouveau Monde’, whose winemaking department is headed by agricultural engineer Gabriel Ruetsch. Born in Argentina but trained in Montpellier, he joined Foncalieu in 2001. Every year he welcomes ten oenologists from Australia, New Zealand, Chile and Argentina as part of an exchange programme. Their team of experts consists of both French and international specialists (Chinese, Argentinean, American, Dutch and others), helping producers get the very best out of their vines.

Club Prestige
Les Vignobles Foncalieu recently established the ‘Club Prestige’. This is a group of around 30 driven and dedicated winemakers who carefully craft their raw materials and constantly hone their vine tending techniques: de-budding, canopy management, green harvests, rigorous sorting, which naturally produce low yields (between 15 and 25 hl/ha). To realise the potential of this fruit, they have invested in the ‘Atelier des Grands Vins’. This state-of-the-art facility dedicated to their Grands Vins range is a unique initiative among the cooperatives of the region.

The work of Les Vignobles Foncalieu has already been recognised with a host of awards and prizes, making the Union one of the region’s most regularly awarded producers. A number of their wines won Gold Medals at the Concours Général Agricole 2011: Côtes-du-Rhône St Gervais 2009, Reserve du Crouzau 2009, Le Versant Syrah 2009, Les Foncanelles Sauvignon 2010 and Merlot 2010, Reserve St Marc Sauvignon 2010 and Merlot 2010, and Domaine de Massia Merlot 2010. Recent awards from the International Wine & Spirit Competition 2011 include Le Versant Viognier 2010 (Silver); Domaine de Cambos Gros Manseng Sec 2010 (Silver Best in Class); Domaine Princemelle 2010 (Silver Best in Class).

Les Vignobles Foncalieu’s oenologists and engineers devote much effort to monitoring the vines, and approach the vinification process with great care:

• When the grapes reach the winery, their revolutionary Grapescan system, which produces a specification sheet for each harvested batch, allows for plot-by-plot monitoring of the crop.

• Since 2005 they have been taking samples from the vines and subjecting them to Dyostem analysis – they are photographed, and their colour, size and homogeneity are assessed. This technique allows them to identify plots of land with identical aromatic profiles, helping them to determine the optimal date of harvest for each profile.

• They have installed Inertis pressing equipment and have thus become a working showcase for Bücher, designers of this technology. The pressing takes place under neutral nitrogen gas to prevent any oxidation of the juice.

• They are particularly well known for their advanced expertise in the alcoholic fermentation of white wines in barrel.

• Weather stations located in each production area provide a wealth of information to help them develop and adapt vine management techniques.

• They are developing a GIS (Geographic Information System) mapping system using GPS technology.

The Grands Vins Collection

Le Lien, Minervois, produced in a limited edition of 5,196 bottles is a wine born of longstanding friendship – a friendship that has united winemakers Luc Torrecilla and Philippe Agnel since they first met at school. Le Lien is their shared treasure, a treasure they are passing on to Romain, Luc’s son, so that the fruits of their expertise are never lost.

Apogée, Saint-Chinian, produced in a limited edition of 5,796 bottles. This wine is an expression of the ties which bind a man to his terroir. Michel Cazevieille has poured his heart and soul into this excellent red, produced beneath the clear skies of Saint Chinian. A new ‘apogee’ for Les Vignobles Foncalieu.

Les Illustres, Coteaux d’Ensérune, produced in a limited edition of 9,204 bottles, achieves true excellence thanks to the work of the 11 winemakers who contribute their efforts and their personal flair. A wine that does justice to their combined expertise.

La Lumière, Corbières-Boutenac, produced in a limited edition of 2,000 bottles, is a wine carefully sculpted by three friends, Gilles Ferrand, Fabrice Oliver and Marceau Lacombe. With yields as low as 15 hl/ha, this 100% Syrah demonstrates why the Boutenac terroir has been elevated to its own appellation. Untamed, pure and full of character.

Les Vignobles Foncalieu – Domaine de Corneille – 11290 ARZENS

1 July 2012 - Felicity Murray