New train line threatens vintage French wines

Makers of the world famous Sauternes wines in south-western France are up in arms over plans to build a high-speed TGV train line through the region. They say it would be a "death sentence" for some of the vintages that have been around for centuries.

New train line threatens vintage French wines
Sauternes producers are worried the train line will affect the region's microclimate. Photo: Renee Silverman/Flickr

Wine producers are furious about government plans to build a high-speed TGV train line – connecting the city of Bordeaux with Dax – that would run through the Ciron valley, near to where the famous sweet wines Sauternes and Barsac are produced.

Plans for the new €9 billion line include a huge points section of rails right at the heart of the valley's special ecosystem, credited with providing around 170 vineyard owners the unique microclimate that allows them to make the famous Sauternes vintages, including the famous Château de Y'quem  which can sell for hundreds of euros a bottle.

The project would see around 4,800 acres of forest and farmland destroyed.

Wine makers argue the line will blow away the uniquely humid microclimate and in particular a morning mist that is needed to make Sauternes.

'It will be a death sentence for some of the vintages that have been around for centuries," wine makers said in a statement to French media.

Philippe Dejean, president of the Union des Grands Vins Liquoreux de Bordeaux, issued a call to arms.

"We call on all who love sweet wines to make their anger known," he said.

Xavier Planty, the president of an organisation protecting wine makers interests, said the TGV trains would ruin the vital morning mist in the valley which is credited as being the secret to the success of the wines.

He says that would mean winemakers in the valley would not qualify for the all-important AOC government certification which is handed out to certain region-specific agricultural products with specific qualities and ingredients, like Champagne in north-east France.

According to local wine makers, the grapes used in making Sauternes wine owe their unique taste to the necrotrophic fungus (botrytis bunch rot) that lives on the vines and which is created by the mist that develops on the Ciron river and warms up by the time it reaches the Sauternes plains.

“If the water in the Ciron is warmed up, it is more difficult for the mist to form. We can't take the risk to mess it all up,” Planty warned.

The train line project, orchestrated by France’s national rail way network owner Réseau Ferré de France (RFF), still has to get a final green light from the government before it can go ahead. But despite this, Planty said the region’s wine makers are already planning on taking the project to the European Court of Justice.

Producers say 2,000 jobs in the industry are on the line as well as the revenue from the 200,000 wine tourists who visit the Sauternes area each year.

The train line is scheduled for 2027.

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9 things you might not know about the TGV as France’s high-speed train turns 40

France's high speed intercity train is celebrating its 40th birthday, so here are some more unusual facts about the much-loved TGV.

9 things you might not know about the TGV as France's high-speed train turns 40
Photo: Loic Venance/AFP

In 1981, President François Mitterrand officially inaugurated the first high-speed rail line connecting Paris and Lyon. A few days later, a bright orange TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse, French for “high-speed train”) raced down the tracks at over 200km/h.

In celebration of the TGVs landmark birthday, Emmanuel Macron and Jean-Pierre Farandou – President of the SNCF, France’s national railway company – were on Friday at the Gare de Lyon in Paris to unveil the ‘TGV of the future’.

In front of a full-scale model of the new TGV M, Macron hailed a prime example of “French genius” and promised to unlock €6.5 billion to develop the TGV network, including new lines serving cities such as Nice and Toulouse.

READ ALSO Everything you need to know about taking the train in France

Emmanuel Macron (right) delivers a speech next to a life-size replica of the next TGV high-speed train at Photo by Michel Euler / POOL / AFP

“We’re going to continue this grand adventure with new industrial commitments,” since more people are looking beyond metropoles to smaller cities – an apparent allusion to post-Covid prospects.

“We see clearly that life and work are going to be restructured, and that our fellow citizens today want to organise their time for living and time for working differently,” he said.

The streamlined version of the bullet train promises to carry more passengers – up to 740 passengers from 600 – while using 20 percent less electricity.

It will continue to whiz people between cities at a top speed of 320 km/h, making most door-to-door trips shorter and cheaper than on airplanes.

To celebrate the birthday of the TGV (which in French is pronounce tay-shay-vay) blowing out its 40 candles, here are a few fun facts about the super-speedy trains.

Patrick  – That’s the name of the first TGV. Built in 1978 and set into action in 1981 on the Paris-Lyon line, the bright orange Patrick travelled some 13.5 million kilometres before taking his well-earned retirement last year.

574.8 km/h – That’s the world rail speed record, held by the Alstom V150 TGV. Although Japan’s superconductor-powered Maglev (magnetic levitation) trains travel faster – with a record of 603 km/h – they technically don’t run on rails.

3 – That’s how many times the TGV has set the world rail speed record: in 1981 (380 km/h), 1990 (515.3 km/h) and 2007 (574.8 km/h). 

2,734 km – That’s the total length of France’s high-speed rail network, with even more lines set to be constructed in the future. This means France has the fourth-longest high-speed rail network in the world, behind China, Spain, and Japan. 

0 – That’s how many passengers sit aboard the IRIS 320, which travels some 1,500 km every day. Laden with cameras and scanners, this 200-metre-long TGV rapidly inspects the state of the TGV’s train lines in order to ensure travellers’ safety and security.

€7 – That’s how much it costs to take a small pet – including a snail – on the TGV. Animals, even tiny ones, need their own tickets. In 2008 a TGV passenger fined for carrying live snails in his luggage without a ticket for his animals, although the fine was later waived after the story received national attention.

240 That’s the number of stations served by the TGV network. 183 of these stations can be found in France. The others are located in Germany, Belgium, Spain, Italy, Luxembourg, Monaco, the Netherlands, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. 

3 billion – That’s how many travellers the TGV had hoped to reach by the end of 2021. The pandemic may have derailed their plans slightly, but the service is still looking strong. The network served it’s 2 billionth passenger in 2012, just over 30 years after its launch.

1947 – the last year without a single recorded strike on the rail network in France. And that doesn’t necessarily mean that pre-1947 was a golden age of industrial relations – just that SNCF’s records are incomplete before then.