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Wine Travel - Bad Boy of Bordeaux

Rich and restless Bernard Magrez is shaking up Bordeaux with his iconoclastic "micro-cuvées." Peter Hellman pays the renegade a visit.

It's a fundamental French belief that when it comes to wine quality, terroir is destiny. And no wine region may offer better justification for this credo than Bordeaux, where subtle differences between vineyards can consign a property like Saint Mambert to relative anonymity while lifting its next-door neighbor, first growth Château Latour, to iconic fame.

Yet Bordeaux-born Bernard Magrez, rich and restless at 69, has been hard at work trying to disprove the all-importance of terroir—the French term used to describe a vineyard's particular combination of soil, exposure and light. Since 2000, he's been focusing on vineyards with unheralded terroirs, determined to make special, limited-production wines he calls "micro-cuvées."

We discussed his rather radical views recently over dinner at his flagship property, the fabled Château Pape Clément, in the Bordeaux suburb of Pessac. A white-gloved waiter poured me a glass of the 2001 Excellence de Bois Pertuis, a micro-cuvée from Magrez's Château Bois Pertuis. Located in the unremarkable northern periphery of Bordeaux, Bois Pertuis has never been particularly lauded for its terroir. And yet the wine itself was remarkable, with spicy, red-fruit aromas and a luxurious, almost figgy richness marked by great finesse. And all of this at a very reasonable $48 a bottle.

To visit Château Bois Pertuis (as I did the following afternoon), you must drive north from the town of Saint-Émilion for nearly an hour, or until rolling vineyards give way to forest. The "château" itself looks like a factory, filled with row after row of barrels, and next to its vineyards is a cornfield—hardly a vote of confidence about the quality of its vines. But Magrez saw potential when he bought the property some years ago. He makes two wines at Bois Pertuis: a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot from machine-harvested grapes that's priced at only $14 a bottle; and Excellence, made with Merlot grapes from the best vineyard parcels that have been hand-selected to ensure only perfect fruit goes into the wine. Fermentation takes place in small oak vats rather than in large tanks, and the wine is aged for 18 months in new French oak barrels. All of this to produce fewer than 400 cases. Magrez says he can afford to do this because he bought the land so cheaply. In fact, it was land no one else wanted.

Excellence de Bois Pertuis is one of the 15 micro-cuvées, also called Cuvées d'Exception, that are the leading edge of Magrez's growing global wine collection. These 15 include the much-praised La Passion d'une Vie ($30), a Grenache and Mourvèdre blend from the Côtes du Roussillon region of France that Magrez introduced this past spring; another Côtes du Roussillon wine called Si Mon Père Savait ("if my father knew"), priced at $30 a bottle; and, from Pessac Léognan, La Sérénité ($75), or serenity, which for Magrez is "one of the most pleasing qualities in a man"—though he admits he doesn't have much of it himself. Other micro-cuvées are Kahina ($35), a blend of equal parts Syrah and Grenache from Morocco, and La Bienvenida ($39), an old-vine Malbec from Argentina, now arriving in the market. Finally, another micro-cuvée to be released in 2006, after at least two years in barrel and bottle, is Magrez Napa Valley. Unlike most of the Magrez micro-cuvées, with their modest provenances and price tags, this wine is made from grapes sourced from a vineyard at the foot of Napa's vaunted Howell Mountain and is aimed at drinkers of trophy wines. With its projected price of $160 a bottle, Magrez Napa Valley costs even more than the showpiece, Château Pape Clément (which generally goes for around $110 a bottle).

Despite Magrez's global reach—his portfolio now totals 35 properties, some as far away as Chile—he is still focused on Bordeaux, where he owns 22 properties. In fact, it was in the staid city of Bordeaux that he made his fortune selling port, wine, spirits and premixed cocktails to supermarkets. He went on to buy several well-established châteaus, including Château La Tour Carnet (purchased in 2000) in the Médoc, where the 16th-century essayist Montaigne and the poet La Boétie once stayed, and Château Fombrauge (bought in 1999) in Saint-Émilion.

Even so, Magrez distances himself from the tradition-bound Bordeaux establishment, which he chides for being unbending. "If a singer gives a great performance in Paris or Lyon," he says, "the audience applauds loudly and with its heart. Here, the audience claps like this"—and he daintily taps one palm with two fingers of the other hand. "Do you know why they do that? They're afraid that if they let themselves go, it will show that someone has domination over them. You can't compete if you have an attitude like that." This, he says, is why Bordeaux is falling behind in the world wine market.

Magrez's grand strategy for selling Bordeaux, and all his other wines, is simplicity itself: Do not expect wine drinkers to respond to appellation names; make them respond to the name Bernard Magrez. And so his name is inscribed on each bottle, the way Louis Vuitton's name appears on the handbags that the company sells.

Magrez is a sophisticated marketer, and he has a knack for high-profile publicity gestures that help sell his wines; for instance, he arranged for Château Pape Clément to be on the table when French president Jacques Chirac hosted Russian president Vladimir Putin in 2003 (even though Chirac is said to prefer the wines of Pomerol). The late Pope John Paul II, on his 1997 visit to Paris, also received a magnum of Château Pape Clément, which was, after all, named for a pope, Clement V, who was elevated from archbishop of Bordeaux to Pope in 1305.

Yet for all his determination to break with tradition, Magrez is, in many ways, a gentleman of the old school. Even under the intense Bordeaux sun, he invariably appears attired in a dark suit, as his male managers are also required to. And he does not hesitate to brusquely reprimand employees for any infraction, even one as minor as resting a water glass on a polished wood tabletop—as I witnessed during my visit to Château Fombrauge. Furthermore, Magrez uses the formal monsieur in conversation. "I do as my father did," Magrez explains. "He always wore a suit, and he always addressed men as monsieur."

Conversation with Magrez often turns to his late father, the owner of a small construction business, and an awesome and sometimes terrifying presence. "When I brought home bad grades once, my father made me kneel for two hours next to the radiator," Magrez recalled. "When I was twelve, he threw me out of the house." The banished boy was later sent to learn woodworking in the Pyrenees. Back in Bordeaux as a young man in 1964, Magrez took over a small port wine distributor from its aging owners. He named it Pitters. Around the same time, the first French hypermarket, Carrefour, opened outside Paris, and Magrez foresaw that his future sales would be in its crowded aisles. So, despite his poor English, the young entrepreneur traveled to Dayton, Ohio, to attend a course given by a marketing guru named Bernard Trujillo. Magrez took a few Trujillo truisms to heart. He can still recite them: "When the stores are packed with merchandise, people's hearts will be happy, and they will open their wallets. And—no parking, no business."

After seeing the swimsuited Esther Williams in an old movie, Magrez decided to lengthen his growing firm's name to the "more substantial" William Pitters. It became a leader in prebottled cocktails. At the same time, his modestly priced Malesan, a mass-market Bordeaux, was so successful that there were always 12,000 barrels of it aging in cellars on the outskirts of Bordeaux. Magrez sold Malesan two years ago, and in February 2005 he sold William Pitters for an undisclosed sum. But rather than take this as an opportunity to retire, the very rich Magrez went from a mass marketer to a micro-cuvée maker.

The effort got off to a spectacular start with Magrez Fombrauge, a micro-cuvée created on very short notice at Château Fombrauge in 2000. When it seemed likely that a great vintage was shaping up, Magrez and the globe-trotting winemaking consultant Michel Rolland (who advises Magrez on all of his properties) decided to create a micro-cuvée with only a few months to go until harvest, selecting Merlot and Cabernet Franc grapes from three vineyard "sweet spots." As with all the micro-cuvées, no expense was spared in producing 500 cases (compared with the 27,000 cases of the regular château bottling). The result was a wine that received a 98- to 100-point score from influential wine critic Robert M. Parker, Jr. Initially $89 a bottle, it has since become a cult wine that sells for $370 per bottle.

When Magrez and I met, he'd just returned from Pantelleria, an Italian island off Tunisia. His traveling companion was actor, fellow vigneron and best friend Gérard Depardieu. They were visiting the vineyard of Depardieu's former girlfriend, Carole Bouquet, the actress and one-time Bond girl. Magrez markets the seven vineyards owned by Depardieu. "There are two important things to know about Depardieu," says Magrez. "First, he suffered as a young person. Second, Depardieu believes, 'If your will is strong, anything is possible.'"

Those two important things also seem to apply to Bernard Magrez. As a child in Nazi-occupied France, Magrez told me, he kept a secret: His father hid a Jewish family in their cellar during the war. Why had his father taken the risk? "I remember my father saying, 'Il faut vivre debout'—one must live upright," Magrez recounted. Brutal as his father had been to him, Magrez repeats the phrase with admiration. "To live debout you have to take risks. What my father did during the Occupation now gives me a sense of how to take risks." In Bernard Magrez's risk is our reward.

Peter Hellman writes the Urban Vintage column for the New York Sun. His favorite walking city is Bordeaux.

Published December 2005
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