How Garage Winemakers Shook Up Bordeaux

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The winding alleyways of St. Emilion

The town of St. Emilion is Bordeaux’s salvation—from a tourism standpoint, certainly, and, many people believe, from a wine standpoint, too. The walled medieval village is carved out of a limestone hillside rising up from the Dordogne River valley. There is a single main road through St. Emilion—a twisting, cobbled thoroughfare—and numerous alleyways that invite cars in but seldom let them out without a scratch or a dent. Unlike the towns of the Medoc, St. Emilion has some vibrancy to it. There is a smattering of restaurants and wine bars, a few cafes and boulangeries. It is an enchanting place that would be worth a detour even if it were not encircled by some of the world’s greatest vineyards.

Looking at ancient, august St. Emilion, you’d never guess that the town has been the seat of a wine revolution in recent years. But it is in and around St. Emilion that a group of maverick chateau owners and oenologists—some native to the area, others new to it—have fashioned a new breed of Bordeaux wine. Forsaking the elegance and subtlety that have traditionally characterized Bordeaux, they have been producing microscopic quantities of lush, generously oaked wines that all but carve their initials on your palate. If Pamela Anderson were a wine, she’d be a new-wave St. Emilion.

Because of the small-scale production, these upstarts have come to be known as vins de garage, and the men and women producing them have come to be called the garagistes. They have found their most enthusiastic champion in the American critic Robert Parker, who has been lavish in his praise and with his scores. The critical acclaim has pushed prices into the stratosphere, unsettling and annoying Bordeaux’s old guard. A food fight over wine has erupted, with St. Emilion serving as the dinner table, if you will.

To learn more about the garagistes and the tumult surrounding them, I spent a day in St. Emilion with Jeffrey Davies. Bordeaux likely never would have become the world’s wine capital had it not been for the involvement and influence of outsiders—British aristocrats and merchants in particular—but Jeffrey is an outsider’s outsider. A warm, instantly likable Californian, Jeffrey is married to a Bordelaise and has lived in France for most of the last 30 years. For a time, he worked as the wine editor of Gault-Millau, a leading French food magazine, and he managed an aerospace manufacturing plant on behalf of an American defense contractor.

In the mid-1980s, he entered the Bordeaux wine trade, starting a negociant firm. One of the peculiarities of the Bordeaux is that the chateaux don’t sell their wines directly to clients; instead, they sell to negociants, who are responsible for selling the wines to importers. It is a bizarre, archaic system, but it serves its purpose. Jeffrey seems to have done well by it; he has a comfortable house on the outskirts of Bordeaux and zooms around town in a Mercedes. (“Zooms” being the operative word; as driving goes, he has very much gone native.) But there are walls he has been unable to breach, presumably because he is an American. Though he is friends with many of the leading figures in the Medoc, it has been difficult for him to get allocations from top chateaux; promises have been made, but the wines never seem to materialize. That Jeffrey is now a leading merchant for many of the garagistes probably does not help his chances.

Our day in St Emilion started with a visit to the man at the center of the storm, Gerard Perse. A native Parisian, Perse is a supermarket tycoon who in 1997 purchased Chateau Pavie, a celebrated St. Emilion winery located on a steep hill just outside of town. (It was his second acquisition in St Emilion; several years earlier he had purchased Chateau Monbousquet.) Perse immediately enlisted the services of famed consulting winemaker Michel Rolland, who specializes in the full-throttle effect and who quickly turned Pavie into a paragon of the form—high in alcohol, rich in extract and oak, and massively concentrated. Parker lapped it up, awarding the 2000 Pavie a perfect 100-point score. But the triple-digit benediction was a mixed blessing, for it made Perse a symbol of the garagiste movement and a whipping boy for those opposed to it.

Short, with a full head of gray hair and a George Hamilton tan, Perse was in a combative mood that morning. He was irritated by rumors, strenuously denied, that Pavie was up for sale, along with the six other chateaux he owns in and around St. Emilion. “The kind of stupidity I hear from one day to the next,” he said, shaking his head. Above all, he was tired of the sniping—from British wine critics, from his neighbors in St. Emilion, from the left-bank aristocracy. I asked Perse how his wines were faring in France. “Badly,” he grumbled. He complained that the French press hadn’t embraced them to the extent he thought it should have. The crux of the problem, he said, was his wealth. “In France,” he explained, “success is not well-received, and whenever someone succeeds, it is immediately supposed that he must have cheated.”

We talked while I tasted. I’d had several Perse wines in the past, none of which I particularly enjoyed. So I didn’t expect to find much pleasure in his 2003s, and I didn’t. The star attraction was the 2003 Pavie, which despite its infancy is already proving to be one of the most controversial Bordeaux ever made. (Parker and other American journalists love it, Jancis Robinson and some fellow Brits loathe it, and a pissing match has ensued.) My take? The wine was a clear step up from the others in the portfolio, but it was a wine of extremes; the sweetness, ripeness, alcohol, extraction, and oak were all ratcheted up to the highest degree. It had too much of everything except what I want in a top Bordeaux: subtlety, elegance, a little discreet charm. It tries too hard to be liked. However, it is unquestionably a well-made wine, the product of meticulous work in the vineyard and the cellar, and plenty of people think Gerard Perse is the best thing to happen to Bordeaux since the Liberation. It would be a tragedy if every St. Emilion wine were made in the manner of Pavie, but that isn’t the case, so let a thousand bottles bloom.

Still, I wanted to hear the other side of the argument, and Jeffrey generously agreed to transport me across enemy lines—to L’Envers du Décor, a St. Emilion wine bar owned by Francois de Ligneris, who is also the proprietor of Chateau Soutard, a bastion of traditionalism, and an outspoken critic of the garagistes. It was almost 1 p.m., and the restaurant was crawling with wine folk—Europeans, Japanese, Americans. I was in love with the place the moment I walked in; with its warm wood paneling, tightly packed tables, thick zinc bar, and thin cloud of smoke, L’Envers was a storybook watering hole.

De Ligneris was standing behind a table in a corner of the dining room, offering tastes of the 2003 Soutard and an assortment of other wines. Despite their palatal and philosophic differences, he and Jeffrey are friendly, and they gave each other a warm greeting. As Jeffrey explained the purpose of our visit, glasses were thrust into our hands, samples poured. We eventually made our way to a table and ordered a light meal—a platter of thinly sliced Serrano ham, a cheese plate, and a pair of salades vertes, along with a bottle of Morgon, a cru Beaujolais and the perfect lunchtime quaffer.

De Ligneris arrived at the table around the same time as the food. An affable bear of a man, he took a seat and began to talk. And talk. About five minutes into his monologue, I noticed another bottle of Morgon had landed on the table, even though we were still on our maiden glasses from the first bottle. But Jeffrey knew at that point what I didn’t—that we were in for a Castro-length disquisition—and had thus called in some reinforcement.

De Ligneris had a habit of prefacing his sentences with, “What I want to say is this,” but it never became clear to me what exactly it was he wanted to say. Imagine running a marathon on a quarter-mile track, and you’ll have some idea of how the conversation progressed—or didn’t. He complained that prices for the vins de garage were absurd but insisted he wasn’t jealous. He charged that a lot of these wines were being made to win Parker points but allowed that experimentation and diversity were good. He told me his family had been in St. Emilion for 200 years but that he welcomed the infusion of new blood to the wine business. When he said that some of the garagistes had insulted St. Emilion and its people, I thought we were at last getting somewhere. But when I asked him to name names, he waved me off. “It is not important who it is,” he said.

By now, Jeffrey and I were halfway through the second bottle, we were both sporting barroom tans, and he’d heard enough. “Francois, let’s cut the bullshit. The wineries here were asleep when the garage guys came along. The garage guys shook things up, and it’s because of them that everyone is talking about the right bank these days.” De Ligneris nodded vigorously, said the attention was indeed a welcome development, and resumed his peroration. It was 3:30 when I finally had to cut him off, explaining that I had another appointment (a claim that had the added virtue of being true).

I still had no idea what his beef was with the garagistes—he’d pretty much lost me at hello—but I liked him; he was passionate, intelligent, and funny (I also liked his wine). Moreover, he seemed to get the joke—namely, that this was an argument about wine. Fermented grape juice. Perhaps all the circumlocution simply reflected an unwillingness to organize his thoughts about a subject that is ultimately so inconsequential; he’d rather waste brain cells drinking wine than ruminating about it. So I left the bar without an answer and minus a few brain cells of my own, but I also departed with memories of a very entertaining afternoon in a terrific town.