In­ter­view: Gérard Ber­trand

He’s a com­mand­ing pres­ence, both phys­i­cally and in terms of the de­vel­op­ment of pre­mium Langue­doc wine. An­drew Jef­ford ex­changes a few passes with the for­mer rugby player turned bio­dy­namic vi­gneron

Decanter - - CONTENTS -

Ac­com­plished for­mer rugby player, wine­maker and thinker. An­drew Jef­ford meets one of Langue­doc’s lead­ing lights

FEW PEO­PLE CAN truly be de­scribed as phys­i­cally un­for­get­table, but Gérard Ber­tand is one. He’s al­most two me­tres tall (6’4”) and un­cowed by his own height: up­right, open, with an easy grace of move­ment. The blue eyes come as a dis­con­cert­ing sur­prise. Tousled grey hair sets off his even fea­tures well enough to whisk him through any screen test; a soft youth­ful­ness of voice adds to the ap­peal. In­ner com­po­sure (a steadi­ness of gaze and ges­ture) counts for a lot: you’d cast him as a leader, a de­ci­sion-maker. once dis­cus­sion is un­der­way, though, the ques­tions start com­ing: Gérard Ber­trand wants to know what you think. You of­fer an opin­ion – then you re­alise that he won’t be eas­ily sat­is­fied by your, his, or indeed any­one’s an­swers. Am­bi­tion is plain in that en­quir­ing rest­less­ness.

He’s not nec­es­sar­ily what you’d ex­pect from a re­tired rugby player in his fifties: his ears still look like ears and his teeth are in­tact; he’s nei­ther bar­rel-shaped nor florid; his gait is un­trou­bled. For all that, he’s been through the min­cer: 11 bone frac­tures dur­ing his 10-year play­ing ca­reer. He learned rugby the hard way. ‘Back then there was just rugby, but now there is rugby school. we played in the street, crash­ing down on to the tar­mac; you fin­ished ev­ery game in a more or less bloody state.’

Since Ber­tand’s fa­ther Ge­orges was a Cor­bières wine-grower and bro­ker who was also a top-level rugby ref­eree at week­ends, his child­hood quickly be­came a seam­less blend of the two ac­tiv­i­ties – and one long boot camp. ‘My sis­ter [Guy­laine] and I didn’t re­ally like school hol­i­days be­cause we had to go to the vines be­tween 5am and 1pm, six days a week. After that, you had to have a siesta, but you couldn’t stay up late be­cause you had to be up again at 4am.’ on Sun­days, Gérard would travel to watch his fa­ther ref­eree matches all over France. Ge­orges would send Gérard out run­ning in the only time left after all that – after dark, through the vines, by starlight.

Rugby union was not a pro­fes­sional sport back then; Gérard says he worked a nor­mal

60-hour week through­out his play­ing ca­reer. He was a flanker for Nar­bonne dur­ing the team’s great pe­riod in the early 1990s when the club won the Yves-du-Manoir Chal­lenge, France’s for­mer an­nual rugby cup com­pe­ti­tion three times in a row, be­tween 1989-1991 – though, to his great re­gret, the team never won the do­mes­tic league com­pe­ti­tion (and its tro­phy, the Bren­nus Shield). Hav­ing cre­ated his wine busi­ness in 1987, he fin­ished his ca­reer at Stade Français in Paris, cap­tain­ing the team that won pro­mo­tion to French rugby’s top tier in 1994. Why the move from Nar­bonne? Be­cause the young Langue­doc wine trader needed to be in Paris to meet France’s key buy­ers. Ber­trand also played three times for the France A rugby team (the sec­ond squad, sup­port­ing the na­tional team) and twice for the France Na­tional Rugby Sevens team.

Pa­ter­nal wis­dom

Do­minique Vrigneau, buyer at UK im­porter Water­mill Wines (for­merly Thierry’s), re­calls Ber­trand in his play­ing days. The two first crossed paths in the late 1970s in the ju­nior ranks of French rugby, when Ber­trand was at Nar­bonne and Vrigneau played as hooker for Cas­tres. ‘He was a hard man,’ Vrigneau re­mem­bers. ‘At the time, there were fewer rules than there are now; he was a tough op­po­nent. He used his fists.’ De­spite that, the pair later worked hap­pily to­gether when Thierry’s be­came his im­porter (from 1993 to 2012); Vrigneau re­mem­bers first vis­it­ing Ber­trand for wine pur­poses when Ber­trand was still op­er­at­ing from his mother’s kitchen, at home in St An­dré de Ro­que­longue in Cor­bières.

‘I dared to ex­per­i­ment with a new path that links bio­dy­nam­ics with quan­tum the­ory’ Gérard Ber­trand

His mother’s kitchen... be­cause by that time, the sem­i­nal event of his life had oc­cured, which was his fa­ther’s death in a car ac­ci­dent in Oc­to­ber 1987. Ber­trand was just 22. ‘My fa­ther was my hero,’ he ex­plains. ‘He ini­ti­ated me into both wine and rugby; I loved trav­el­ling with him. He ex­plained the dif­fer­ent ter­roirs to me, where the best wines of the re­gion were; he taught me to taste, and helped me share his work. He loved the high Cor­bières and Rous­sil­lon. We of­ten went to Dur­ban, to Cas­cas­tel-des- Cor­bières, to Pazi­ols, Tuchan, Em­bres-et-Cas­tle-maure… He told me sto­ries of the Cathars, but also of the lo­cal grow­ers.

‘He used to say back then that the wines made them­selves since the ter­roir was so good: he taught me that you don’t have to force na­ture. He was one of the first to be­lieve in the po­ten­tial of this area and its wines, and to try to re­veal it. He al­ways talked about the 1,001 de­tails, both in rugby prepa­ra­tion and wine cre­ation – and he al­ways had the will to fol­low up on the 1,001 de­tails. Be­cause of what he had given me, I was ready to take over the re­lay when he died, and above all I had the con­fi­dence in what I wanted to achieve.’

In­stinc­tive touch

Vrigneau is con­vinced that ev­ery­thing Be­trand has done since 1987 forms part of an on­go­ing con­ver­sa­tion with his fa­ther. ‘I’m sure ev­ery night he looks at his fa­ther’s pic­ture and says, “This is what I’ve achieved”. When some­one is driven, there’s al­ways a strong rea­son for it. But,’ he con­tin­ues, ‘he’s im­pres­sive on the

wine front, and in par­tic­u­lar he’s a very pre­cise wine blender with a great in­stinct. He’s also cre­ated a great brand – some­thing out of noth­ing. He’s a very in­ter­est­ing man, very de­mand­ing, very com­mer­cially as­tute. What’s changed for the bet­ter over the years is the style. His wines be­gan as very mas­cu­line, very big, and it was some­times too much; now they are a lot more sub­tle.’

Suc­cess came more quickly than Ber­trand ex­pected – in part be­cause of his readi­ness to take risks. The big­gest gam­ble of all was the pur­chase of Do­maine de l’Hospi­talet in La Clape in 2002 for €9 mil­lion, which was more than his own com­pany’s en­tire turnover at the time. It worked though, and a daz­zling port­fo­lio of other prop­er­ties have fol­lowed: 14 in to­tal, in­clud­ing La Sau­vageonne in Ter­rasses du Larzac and Do­maine de l’Aigle in Li­moux. Ber­trand now owns 750ha, with 500ha al­ready farmed bio­dy­nam­i­cally and the rest to be con­verted by 2020, mak­ing this the largest group of bio­dy­namic es­tates in the world. It’s a sin­cere com­mit­ment, and not a mar­ket­ing ges­ture: Be­trand (who has al­ways used home­o­pathic medicine per­son­ally) has read 30 of Rudolf Steiner’s books, and con­sid­ers him 'a ge­nius’.

‘The teach­ings of Steiner,’ he says in his book Wine, Moon and Stars (trans­lated by De­can­ter con­tribut­ing editor Jane An­son), ‘his un­der­stand­ing of the spec­trum of life from the tini­est of de­tails to the most in­fi­nite of con­cepts... have been es­sen­tial to me.’

Indeed in his book he also says: ‘I dared to ex­per­i­ment with a new path that links bio­dy­nam­ics with quan­tum the­ory,’ though this sur­pris­ing de­vel­op­ment is only sketched out in hazy terms.

Spread­ing the word

Did his rugby celebrity help in build­ing the com­pany? ‘It was cer­tainly very im­por­tant,’ he ad­mits, ‘par­tic­u­larly in the early years and in France. Both in viti­cul­ture and in distri­bu­tion, peo­ple wanted to open doors to me. In­ter­na­tion­ally, though, that was less true; apart from in the UK, peo­ple aren’t very in­ter­ested in rugby and don’t re­ally know what it is, though the Amer­i­cans like peo­ple who have had two ca­reers.’

The lessons of rugby, though, have been a life­long guide, he says: ‘Hu­mil­ity, fra­ter­nity, team spirit, the will to win to­gether. And also the de­sire to ex­ceed your­self, and to push your fears back; to re­in­force your courage.’

He uses an­other sport­ing metaphor about the present chal­lenges and fu­ture prospects for Langue­doc and Rous­sil­lon. ‘The south needs to find its third breath now. We have 24 cen­turies of wine-grow­ing history here; our chal­lenge is no longer savoir faire but faire savoir [not ‘know­ing how to do things’, but know­ing how to take what’s done and make it bet­ter known]. What mat­ters is pre­mium, ter­roir, qual­ity.’ It’s com­ing, he feels. ‘We have a global sales team of 70 and we give 300 mas­ter­classes a year, so we train at least 3,000 peo­ple ev­ery year in ed­u­ca­tion about Langue­doc wine. And they are en­thu­si­as­tic; they can see the dif­fer­ences in ter­roir.’

Per­son­ally, he now del­e­gates more than he once did. He en­joyed writing that first book and is work­ing on a sec­ond (per­haps we’ll learn more about bio­dy­nam­ics and quan­tum the­ory). He runs, cy­cles, prac­tises yoga and med­i­tates for half an hour a day. He con­tin­ues to pol­ish Clos d’Ora, his ‘grand cru’ mi­cro-do­main in Min­er­vois-La Livinière, where he says ‘my in­ten­tion has been to cre­ate a wine that de­liv­ers a mes­sage of love, peace and har­mony’. And he is work­ing with the mayor of Car­cas­sonne to es­tab­lish a south­ern French equiv­a­lent of Bur­gundy’s cel­e­brated Con­frérie des Che­va­liers du Tastevin.

And, of course, he con­tin­ues to stride around the world meet­ing peo­ple – who never for­get the tall, calm for­mer rugby player with pen­e­trat­ing blue eyes.

‘Gérard worked a nor­mal 60-hour week through his rugby play­ing ca­reer’

Be­low: Ch‰teau lÕHospi­taletÕs flag­ship grand vin

Be­low: the win­ery and build­ings at Gérard Ber­trand’s main pro­duc­tion cen­tre at Château l’Hospi­talet in La Clape, Langue­doc

Gérard Ber­trand in the bar­rel cel­lar at Do­maine Ci­galus

An­drew Jef­ford is a De­can­ter con­tribut­ing editor and reg­u­lar colum­nist. He lives near Mont­pel­lier in Langue­doc

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