The continuous march of the habitat in Charentes
With a density lower than the national average, the Charentes is characterized by a very unevenly distributed population, which is less and less dependent on the vine. On this territory, almost empty spaces follow others much more populated.
A disparate demography in Charente-Maritime
Because of the activities linked to the sea, the Charente-Maritime is experiencing a regular increase in population (more than 90 inhabitants/km²), while the Charente (56 inhabitants/km²) is suffering from a demographic decline that is difficult to halt, with nearly 50% of its inhabitants occupying less than 10% of the territory. The populated cantons of the Charentes are concentrated between Angoulême and Cognac, and extend towards Saintes. Densities are often higher than 70 inhabitants/km² and correspond to the passageway of the middle Charente, relatively well served by the old shipping route, the railway, the N141, the extension of the axis Centre Europe Atlantique. The Charente vineyards and the trading towns still maintain a certain population threshold. On the coast, the density is higher than 100 inhabitants/km², due to the maritime activities and the development of seaside tourism.
Beyond the three first growths of the Cognac appellation, the density rapidly decreases. In the deep rural areas, it is less than 30 inhabitants/km², with the cantons of Jonzac and Saint-Jean-d’Angély falling to less than 28 inhabitants/km². In Haute-Saintonge, the human occupation is below 10 inhabitants/km² in the forest of the Double, all services having disappeared for a long time. In Charente, the cantons of Villefagnan, Aigre, Mansle… are at less than 25 inhabitants/km².
The French diagonal of emptiness begins at the gates of Cognac and Angoulême. As soon as the vineyard disappears, large-scale farming and the concentration of farms eliminate the possibilities of population growth. The rural world is divided into two forms of settlement. A diagonal of grouped habitat stretches from Aunis to Angoumois, passing through Saint-Jean-d’Angély, Matha and Rouillac, with large towns of 100 to 200 inhabitants located at crossroads: Brie-sous-Matha, Siecq, Mareuil, Sigogne… Human occupation is already very old on these low open plateaus and groie lands… The village is implanted in the middle of a wine-growing nucleus and the farms are grouped in its center. In the past, it was better endowed with public services and businesses that depended on the wine industry. With the new century, the depopulation is confirmed, the beautiful farms with closed courtyards become residential houses, often acquired by British people. In order to adapt, the distillers installed outside equipment corresponding to the current viticultural techniques. The town lost its original function, and the activities moved back to the main town of the canton. To the south of Saintes and Cognac, the chalky Santonian depression and the Campanian lowlands contain a few large towns: Montils, Pérignac, Lonzac… Nearby, the Gallo-Roman road or Chemin Boisné has always served them. The existence of wheat lands and powerful lordships favored this type of settlement. This type of habitat is also found in some sectors of the “Pays royannais”.
The lands of Charente live to the rhythm of the wine industry
On the rest of the Charente wine-growing area, a dispersed to semi-grouped habitat dominates. The lands of Champagne are marked by the existence of important villages that have long been home to services related to wine growing: blacksmith, wheelwright, cooper, agricultural machinery workshop, shops… Beyond the village, hamlets of various sizes and more recent isolated farms have developed. The human occupation corresponds to the stages of the implantation of the vineyard. During the 18th century, the Champagne region of Segonzac underwent major plantations from west to east. Settlement became more scattered in the communes of Saint-Preuil, Bonneuil, Touzac, Malaville… Beautiful wine farms met the demand for brandy from 1830 to 1870. The Cognac merchants were also interested in the wines from the banks of the Gironde estuary and the southern Charentes. The human settlement is directly dependent on the situation of the wine economy. Since the 2000s, the vineyard is no longer a bulwark against depopulation. The work in the vineyards is reduced according to the financial capacity of the farms, which continue to modernize in order to control their costs.
The habitats of the Charente region are still evolving
Since the second half of the 19th century, small castles and mansions with slate roofs have been built in the towns and hamlets of Grande Champagne. These are signs of the wealth of the families of distillers and of their profession. By using new building materials, they show their social success. Today, the investments are focused on the renewal of the vineyard, the viticultural equipment and the taking into account of the environmental data.
During the two centuries of the golden age of cognac, the Charente wine farm was enriched with new buildings. In the 18th century, its configuration remained modest with the main house, not very slender, the barn and the wine storehouse in the extension. Later, the main house took on the appearance of a longère, an alignment of buildings without a floor. After the 1850’s, the growth of cognac sales gave a new impetus to the business spirit. A second floor was added to the main house, whose rooms were distributed on either side of a main entrance. The rectangular plan of the farmhouse ends with the distillery and the brandy cellars, blackened by a yeast fed with alcohol vapors.
With its high blind walls pierced by a monumental porch covered with a basket-handle arch and including a carriage gate and a pedestrian entrance in ashlar, the wine farm impresses in the middle of the vineyards. Facing south, the mansion has a four-sided roof and, depending on the owner’s financial situation, slate replaces tiles for the roof. Under the pressure of technical revolutions and taxation, the beautiful layout of the plan exploded for reasons of convenience and safety.
The distillery and aging cellars are located outside, beyond the main access alley. Most of the distillers had a Charentais still to transform the wines. The red brick chimneys of the boilers above the roofs, the stainless steel tanks for the storage of wine and cooling water, the tanks for the recovery of marc… Nearby, the cellars for the production of eaux-de-vie are built in a traditional layout of stones and rubble to guarantee darkness, hygrometry and to limit evaporation from the angels. Today, the cellars are modernized with equipment allowing better security, while being part of a sustainable development approach.
What future for the habitats in Charente?
In spite of the depopulation, small urban centers still remain which concentrate residential spaces, craft activities and trade like Segonzac, Châteauneuf, Jonzac, Gémozac… The urban fabric is still alive and more or less dynamic. Alongside the ageing cellars, there are cooperage workshops, artisanal zones offering wine-making equipment, storage areas… But their services (tax collection, insurance and banking agencies…) have disappeared. The two brandy capitals, Jarnac and Cognac, have a strong hold on the vineyards and the county towns. In less than two centuries, they have experienced strong urban growth linked to the commercial development of cognac. They concentrate the headquarters of the main trading houses and are rooted along the river, the old navigable axis for shipping the precious commodities to the estuary ports of Tonnay-Charente and Rochefort. With less than 5,000 inhabitants, Jarnac managed to maintain a certain attraction thanks to the trading houses. Courvoisier, Royer, Delamain, Hine… As for Cognac (27,000 inhabitants), it has eliminated its rivals in the management of the wine world, the establishment of the BNIC (Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac) enhancing its vocation to serve the industry. Angoulême has thus handed over the administration of the wine industry to the BNIC: customs, trade, etc. The main trading houses (Hennessy, Martell, Rémy Martin, Camus, etc.) represent employment centers with 200 to more than 500 employees. There are industrial and commercial zones, large cooperage workshops to supply the storage cellars, cognac warehouses, bottling, shaping and packaging plants.
This typical urbanized landscape is in the process of being transformed to adapt to new economic and security conditions. The storage of eaux-de-vie is moving to specialized warehouses on the outskirts of cities or in the countryside: Merpins for Rémy Martin, Bagnolet for Hennessy, Rouillac for Martell… The current mutations intended to satisfy lovers of fine eaux-de-vie and tourists attracted by a rich heritage show that there is still new potential to be developed.