When it comes down to it, wine is the product of passion. It may be ultimately created by the terroir, the soil, and the climate, but in the end, someone who loves the wine as well as the land must bring everything together to create one of the world’s ultimate expressions. Enter François Mitjavile, the proprietor of Tertre Rôteboeuf, who speaks about wine as if it runs in his bloodstream, fueling his heart. On the morning that we spent with him, we learned that he is not just a winemaker, but also a poet, a philosopher, and a scientist. To him, wine is life, and it would seem the converse might be true to him as well.
When we arrived at Tertre Rôteboeuf, Monsieur Mitjavile was quietly working at his desk. When told of our arrival, he stood up, put on his suspenders, and donned the same cardigan sweater and scarf that has become his signature. Stepping into the foyer, he greeted us warmly and immediately starting speaking about wine, literature, and everything in between. This was one of the most passionate soliloquies about wine that I have ever heard, and it was very insightful and thought provoking. It is clear that M. Mitjavile has a unique perspective on wine and winemaking, based on his many years of experience.
We then headed outside to an area overlooking the vineyards. On this day, it was overcast, cool, and a bit damp. It was here that we discussed terroir and its influence on his wines. As winemaker, he does not want to produce huge, powerful wines; rather, he describes his aim as classic, aromatic, refined, and emotional wines. He also prefers not to discuss tannins. To him, a ‘rude tannin’ is poor in flavor, and when you feel the tannins, you have not obtained the adequate flavors. He also wants to express the flavors of where the grapes are grown, and to accurately express the character of the vintage. To him, terroir is a pragmatic concept which can overcome the difficult conditions of the climate. One example at the Tertre Rôteboeuf is the humidity of its limestone plateau, which can help feed the roots if there is not enough rain.
Mitjavile likes to talk about the longevity of wine. He isn’t interested in discussing the role of tannins in the aging of Bordeaux wines; he would much rather talk about aromatic expression which creates ‘aromatic music.’ During the grape maturation, he thinks of the creation of jam and flavor. He strives for voluptuousness with lower acidity. But he notes that this is a dangerous balance; push this too far, and the wine will not age properly. He prefers producing a clearer wine, rather than one that is dark and opaque. During the aging of wine, there should be a ‘sumptuous degradation of flavors.’ He relays that his ideas are not new, but are simply classic ways of winemaking. He notes that there is no reason to reinvent history; instead, follow in the footsteps of our forefathers and add subtleties.
He loves to discuss literature, and at one point, he even guided us into his library. Something in our conversation made him think of Jim Harrison, an American author who had recently died. Jim’s stories were about family and the land, and as a wine lover, his stories bore similarities to M. Mitjavile’s. We thumbed through some books before M. Mitjavile relayed a quote from Jim Harrision: “The simple act of opening a bottle of wine has brought more happiness to the human race than all the collective governments in the history of earth.” What a fitting and beautiful message, indeed.
But our discussion for most of the visit focused on wine, much on the different vintages of Tertre Rôteboeuf. To him, a pure character vintage is one in which the terroir and climate leave their expression in the wine. A wine has a life, like a person. As the wine ages and the ‘skeleton’ becomes more prominent, the fruit in the wine takes one last ‘fire walk.’ But before then, the density of the fruit creates an ‘aromatic bomb.’ He noted being most proud of the 1985 vintage. This was before the modern winemaking techniques were instituted.
He described the 1989 vintage, with its sunny weather and later harvest, and noted that it is still opening up flavors 27 years later. The 1990 vintage, on the other hand, has lost some opulence. We discussed the 1999 vintage that still has generous flavors, despite this not being a blockbuster vintage. It was interesting hearing his thoughts on the 2006 vintage, which he described as 60 different violins playing.
He described the 2009 wine as ‘American cake,’ noting that this was a traditional vintage. And to him, the 2010 vintage can be compared to 1989, but certainly different due to more modern winemaking techniques. In the end, he finds each vintage has something fascinating and there is always something to discover. But as he says, “One person’s palate can not and should not define them all. Each person discovers wine through their own journey.” And upon leaving Tertre Rôteboeuf, our journey continued…