In France, vintners erase a notorious past


Coteaux du Tricastin wine was inextricably associated with the plant, and with a vaguely defined danger of contamination in 2008. In response, winemakers in France’s Rhone Valley created a brand-new identity. (Philippe Merle /AFP/Getty Images)
January 19, 2012

The vintners around this ocher-stone village in the Tricastin region of southern France had it all: rolling hills, a historic chateau, sun-splashed lavender fields between their vines and a tart little wine dating from Roman times.

If only it weren’t for the smokestacks rising arrogantly from the nearby Tricastin nuclear plant — and if only one of the companies operating the plant had not been convicted in 2008 of dumping a batch of uranium fluoride that ended up in aquifers running like veins under the banks of the Rhone River.

After the widely reported nuclear accident, the wine here, Coteaux du Tricastin, was inextricably associated with the plant and with a vaguely defined danger of contamination. Prices plummeted and merchants stayed away. Wine stewards erased the cursed name from their lists in restaurants around the country. Leftover bottles of Coteaux du Tricastin were going for a little over a euro, or $1.29 at today’s values, in Paris supermarkets.

Tricastin, the vintners had to admit, had come to mean radioactive. The wine no longer evoked lavender and truffle but smokestacks and nasty chemicals. Although as pleasant as ever and scientifically proven to be unaffected, it was forever going to be shunned as dangerous to the health as long as it had that name on the label.

Desperate, the Tricastin vintners did something never before tried since France began classifying wine by its place of origin: They changed their region’s name. Coteaux du Tricastin became Grignan-les-Adhemar, eliminating the dreaded association with the nuclear plant, which is near Pierrelatte, about 15 miles to the west of Grignan.

And a wine by any other name, it turned out, was not the same at all. In the two seasons since the name change was granted, the winemakers of Grignan-les-Adhemar have found a second wind.

Prices have gone back up to $85 to $110 a hectoliter (100 liters) in bulk and $5 to $7 a bottle, about normal for an unpretentious Rhone Valley appellation. Merchants who come calling have stopped asking about the nuclear accident at Pierrelatte and inquire instead about the Renaissance chateau at Grignan that was the last residence of the Marquise de Sevigne, the famed letter writer, or whether the dogs are turning up a lot of truffles in surrounding oak groves.

“We have started to see the light again,” said Henri Bour, who heads the local wine syndicate and whose several domaines are the region’s largest producer with 320,000 bottles a year. “We feel we have been reborn.”

Jean-Luc Monteillet, whose Domaine de Montine depends heavily on direct sales to tourists who walk in after visiting the chateau, said he is delighted that nobody brings up the nuclear plant anymore. When a minor explosion occurred in a generator at the Tricastin plant in July, for instance, no one made the connection with Grignan-les-Adhemar wine.

“It’s over,” Monteillet said, smiling and pouring out samples of his creations.

A marketing move

A wine’s appellation, or the name of its place of origin, is granted only after years of investigation by the Agriculture Ministry’s National Institute of Origin and Quality; the right to put an appellation on a label has often been a quest for lesser wines eager to join the ranks of more prestigious — and more lucrative — neighbors.

The vintners here traditionally had marketed their wine as the product of a countryside right out of Marcel Pagnol’s sepia-colored novels about southern France. Local villages are perched on hillsides like medieval fortresses. Seventy percent of France’s truffle crop comes from the oak groves that surround the little towns.

After a long campaign, the winemakers won their AOC, appellation d’origine controllee, in the early 1960s — about the time the Tricastin nuclear plant began rising from the ground. Ironically, given what happened later, local vintners did not at the time see the decision to build a nuclear plant nearby as a danger.

More than 40 years later, the decision to change the name was not taken lightly, Bour said. Among the 300 families in 21 communities who produce the wine, even vintners who were losing money every year fought the idea as a betrayal of their heritage and a renouncement of the earlier struggle to get a profitable trademark AOC.

Even among those who considered a change inevitable, there was discord about the proposed new name. Why would Grignan get the glory when 20 other communities also produce the wine? they asked. The final choice bowed to the region’s main town but also to the Adhemar family, who reigned over the area as feudal lords from the Middle Ages into the zenith of divine-right royalty in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Bour said he and several other Grignan winemakers visited the director of the National Institute of Origin and Quality as he vacationed in nearby Aix-en-Provence and explained their case in dramatic terms. Unless the name was changed and fast, they told him, the wine industry in Tricastin would dry up, and at least 1,000 people who work in it would be looking for jobs.

“We were heading into the hole a little more every day,” he said.

But the institute director was, it turned out, a bureaucrat with a heart. He pushed the shift through in an unheard-of two years. On Nov. 16, 2010, the name change was made official, and the makers of Coteaux du Tricastin hoisted their glasses in a toast to Grignan-les-Adhemar.

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