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
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.
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.’
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