First published in The Irish Times, Saturday 26th August, 2017
Tall and charismatic, Gérard Bertrand commands the respect and loyalty of those who work for him. “People either work here for three months or 10 years,” he says. “If they fit in, they stay for a long time.” Bertrand is one of those responsible for reviving the fortunes of the Languedoc, a massive wine region that runs along much of the Mediterranean coast of France.
In the 1980s few people were interested. For many years it had been a mass producer of cheap jug wine. Bertrand started by selling well-made inexpensive wines to the supermarkets. He also began buying up moribund estates that had old vines, good soils and the potential to make great wine. Today he owns 22 estates and 410 hectares of vines.
He says he worked his first vintage at the age of 10 with his father at Château Villamajou in Corbières, going on to join the business full-time in his early 20s. At the time he was playing senior rugby with Narbonne, his local team – he was captain – and he is now a shareholder. In 2002, he became interested in biodynamic farming and began to experiment with two hectares of vines in his home estate of Cigalus. The wines were fresher, with much better acidity. Convinced by this, he is now in the process of converting all of his estates so that 50 per cent will be organic by 2020, while 30 per cent are already biodynamic.
“It is a long journey that takes time. At first most of my staff said the boss has gone crazy, but now they will leave if we go back to conventional [winemaking].” Everyone I met had an almost evangelical belief in the project and in biodynamics. “I tell you, it works,” argues Bertrand. “The results are in the vineyard. It is hard for people who don’t believe to understand. My soil was like a fridge; full of everything but cold or frozen. The vines couldn’t eat it! As vignerons, we need to deliver the taste of the grapes and the taste of the terroir. Biodynamics magnifies all of this.” Today, most of his bulk wines are also sourced from co-operatives that practice organic viticulture.
Bertrand’s huge success is the result of clever marketing and good winemaking. His wines are modern, with good ripe fruits, yet remain true to their origins. His greatest achievement may have been to convince consumers that the Languedoc can make high-quality wine. His wines range in price from entry level up to €180 for a bottle of Clos d’Ora from his small remote estate in Minervois La Livinière. The flagship property is Château l’Hospitalet, a restaurant, shop with tasting room, and hotel on the Mediterranean coastline close to Narbonne. It is well worth dropping in if you are in the area this summer
Naturae Merlot 2016, IGP Pays d’Oc Organic
Sulphite-free wine, rich and powerful with stewed dark fruits.
Stockists: Dunnes Stores
Four to choose from
Domaine de Villemajou 2014, Boutenac, Corbières
Very tasty broad rustic dark fruits and liquorice. Good with cassoulet.
Cigalus Blanc 2015, IGP Aude Hauterive
Voluptuous peach and apricot fruits overlaid with subtle oak. Excellent wine, brimming with character.
Domaine de l’Aigle Pinot Noir 2014, Haute Vallée de l’Aude
Elegant soft piquant raspberry and dark cherry fruits with a smoky note. Good with grilled duck breast.