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LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Producers from the world's biggest wine region are on a mission to tell the world about a renaissance in the south of France whose time may have come on the wings of a global depression.
Some 25,000 producers, 270 wine cooperatives and 3,000 businesses across a vast arc of France's Mediterranean coast from the Spanish border to the Rhone valley are exploding the region's table wine image and have joined forces under the umbrella marque of "Sud de France" to take on the world market.
In the last three years, the Sud de France brand created by the governing council for France's Languedoc-Roussillon region has been establishing export footholds around the world and winning converts for its wines, food and agricultural products.
"We are running operations in 30 countries worldwide," Sud de France Export executive project manager for the wine department Elodie Le Drean told Reuters at the London International Wine Fair this month.
She said the region has opened export houses (Maisons de la Region Languedoc-Roussillon) in London, Shanghai, Milan, Brussels and in New York in the last three years to help regional businesses establish relations, woo clients and conduct marketing campaigns.
Le Drean said the global recession enveloping the world could actually be a blessing in disguise for Sud de France winemakers, who have been undergoing a revolution in the way they grow grapes, make and even market their wines.
"It's the moment to give our wines a voice," she said.
Languedoc has been a center of wine-making since the ancient Greeks first planted grapes in the area. The Romans also settled here and a section of one of the oldest Roman roads in Gaul, the Via Domitia, built for travel and commerce including the trade in wine, can still be found in the city of Narbonne.
Languedoc-Roussillon, which produced 34 percent of total French wine output in 2008, has always played second fiddle to the better known French wine regions of Bordeaux and Burgundy on the international scene and suffered from the perception that its producers mostly make table wine through cooperatives.
But in the past 20 years, the winemakers, growers and even the much-maligned cooperatives have been undergoing a transformation in their agricultural practices, choices of grapes, winemaking processes and marketing.
Wine experts said the current global financial crisis is a boon for Sud de France producers and wine-lovers who still want to drink top wines but are unwilling or in the current climate unable to shell out for famous names from Bordeaux and Burgundy.
International Wine Challenge Co-Chairman Charles Metcalfe said Sud de France producers, including some of the cooperatives, have made enormous strides to produce extraordinary wines.
"They really do offer a lot of very good value, which you have to search high and low for in places like Bordeaux," he said. "The story for me is there is a new generation of whites."
Cooperatives have been improving their wines, establishing exports to nearby Britain and beyond, while some growers have abandoned the cooperatives their families have sold grapes to for generations to make their own wines.
Producers been grubbing up some of the trickier traditional grapes such as Carignan and Mourvedre in favor of consumer-friendly varietals like Syrah and Pinot Noir.
They have also been turning to science for soil testing, harvesting and installing the latest technology behind the picturesque stone walls of their caves.
Gerard Bertrand, who has some 325 hectares under the vine across a sunny region of vast plains and rolling hills which tumble gently into the Mediterranean is one of Sud de France's most successful producers.
Bertrand's wines have taken 20 or so medals at the Paris Agricultural Show over the last 10 years, are selected regularly by specialized wine guides such as Guide Hachette, served in Air France business class and sold across the world.
The elegant 44-year-old former French international rugby player told Reuters that the renaissance in wine-making in the Sud de France region has been going on since the 1970s. His late father, Georges Bertrand, was one of the first to realize its untapped potential. The son has built on the vision.
"We are the 'new world' of Europe," he declared.
Editing by Steve Addison