The Poet of Roast Beef Hill

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Pigott is a British journalist and wine writer

On a late February afternoon, I sit opposite winemaker Francois Mitjavile in the sitting room of his Tertre Roteboeuf estate in St. Emilion, in Bordeaux.

"I'm not a very refined person," he says laconically. "Actually, I eat rather like a pig. However, people tell me that I make very civilized wines. Perhaps it will rub off on me."

Little more than a decade ago, only a few wine world insiders had heard of Tertre Roteboeuf, but it has rapidly become one of the most sought-after red Bordeaux. Mitjavile hardly looks the part of a successful winegrower, though. With his locks of gently graying hair, corduroy trousers and tweed waistcoat, he appears more like a poet or a philosopher than a vintner.

Indeed, poetry and philosophy seem the right words to describe the way he talks about wine. He hardly mentions the nuts and bolts of winemaking. Instead, it is the "soul" of the wine that interests him.

"The winegrower is a civilized peasant," he says. "Civilized because he adapts the cultivation of the vine to the circumstances of his vineyard and to those of each growing season. Wine is a highly elaborated agricultural product with deep roots in our civilization."

Once he has started on a particular train of thought, Mitjavile tumbles from one idea to the next, always searching for new connections and for metaphors to express them.

"Great wine is an aromatic bomb of music which plays new melodies each time it is experienced," he declares matter-of-factly, as if this highly unconventional idea were obvious.

There could not be a better way to describe the wines Mitjavile has been making at Tertre Roteboeuf since 1978. When young, his wines are perfumed with a panoramic spectrum of fruit, spice, herb and mineral aromas quite unlike the forceful black currant and vanilla bouquet typical of young Bordeaux reds.

The 1997 Tertre Roteboeuf tasted from barrel had notes of sour cherry, fig, lemon peel, licorice, cocoa powder and wet earth. The 1996, also in the barrel but shortly to be bottled, smelled of black plum, hazelnut, sage and something reminiscent of a stonemason's yard. With each swirl of the glass, new aromas emerged. Unlike the wines of many renowned Bordeaux chateaux, which vary in body from vintage to vintage but tend to show the same character every year, each vintage of Tertre Roteboeuf is unique.

"Quality in wine should be defined through authenticity," says Mitjavile, "just as it is among people through sincerity. I want to capture the originality of each vintage.

"What do you think of these wines, though?" he asks probingly.

The powerful, emphatic '96 leaves me searching for words. Then I remember a favorite expression of the Irish painter Francis Bacon: "the violence of the rose."

This description is sincere but not as clever as it might seem. In the pile of books on which my glasses of wine are balanced, I had noticed several about Bacon's work. There is no tasting room at Tertre Roteboeuf, so visitors either have to stand in the cellar or taste in the library-sitting room of the house. On another table lie CDs, including Radu Lupu's interpretation of Schubert's piano sonatas and the Cranberries' first album next to a well-thumbed copy of Descartes' "Discourse on Method." Mitjavile and his wife, Emilie, have interests ranging far beyond those typical of Bordeaux winegrowers.

Their house is not large, but the elegance of the limestone facade certainly seems worthy of the designation "chateau." However--unusual for Bordeaux--this word does not appear on the label.

"The house was built around 1730 as a hunting lodge, so originally nobody slept here," Emilie Mitjavile explains.

Instead, it is the name of the 14-acre vineyard--Tertre Roteboeuf--she inherited from her father in 1961 that is on the label. There is good reason for this, because the Tertre Roteboeuf vineyards are quite exceptional for the region. Most Bordeaux vineyards, even those of top chateaux, are flat or very gently inclined. At Tertre Roteboeuf, they fall away steeply in front of the house and enjoy almost due south exposure.

The name Tertre, or "hilltop," refers to the gently sloping land behind the house. The name Roteboeuf, or "roast beef," comes from the fact that the slope beneath it used to be plowed by oxen that turned red with exertion in this heat trap.

Because Emilie was still a child when she inherited the estate, from 1961 until 1977 the vineyards were leased to her cousins, who blended the wine in with that from their own vineyards. It was after the house was rented by the Mitjavile trucking company that she met Francois--whose family had been involved in the wine trade in Spain and who had worked at nearby Chateau Figeac--and they had the idea of bringing Tertre Roteboeuf back to life.

When Francois shows me the vineyards late in the afternoon, dusk is falling fast, and it is not easy to see much except that the vines have the thick trunks that is a sure indicator of considerable age.

"The idea of the Appellation Controlee [the legal system governing the production of France's most famous wines] is not to encourage the production of the greatest wines but to guarantee the identity of the wine from each district and vineyard, which is rather funny," he says as we stand in the shadowy garden. "There are years that are so dry that with irrigation we could make a better wine, but this is expressly forbidden."

Today there are many French vintners for whom terroir, the character that the vineyard itself can give to the wine, is a hollow word used only to make the right impression on potential customers. However, Mitjavile believes in this principle with an almost religious fervor.

He is convinced that to get the full character from the vineyard, it is necessary to pick the grapes as late as possible, and he is therefore one of the last in all of Bordeaux to harvest.

"The best grapes are those that are so ripe they are just about to fall from the vine," he says, "and in the cellar, a similar principle applies. The wine must mature in barrel as far as possible before being bottled, until it is almost too developed."

This flies in the face of modern winemaking practice. Today most Bordeaux winemakers try to bottle their wines with fresh fruit aromas and speak of retaining the wine's youthful vigor so that it will age well. However, Mitjavile sees what he does in the narrow stone-walled cellars beneath his home as a personal development of the Bordeaux school of winemaking whose goal he maintains was always to make wines capable of long aging.

The result is wines with rich, plush textures and forthright aromas that make them easy to enjoy when they are young. This has led many experts to cast doubt on their ability to age.

To prove that his wines can improve, he shows me the 1985 Tertre Roteboeuf, one of the first vintages to be matured in 100% new oak, the rule for the estate's wines today. It is now at its glorious peak of maturity, and its suave silkiness and great persistence of flavor remind me of mature vintages of Chateau Cheval Blanc, traditionally regarded as the greatest wine of St. Emilion. It smells like an entire spice rack, though--aromas that you do not find in Cheval Blanc's wines.

Although the vineyards of Tertre Roteboeuf are planted 85% with Merlot and 15% with Cabernet Franc in contrast to 40% Merlot and 60% Cabernet Franc at Cheval Blanc, the difference in character between the two almost certainly comes from the soil. It is limestone at Tertre Roteboeuf and gravel and clay at Cheval Blanc.

Tertre Roteboeuf of any vintage is expensive and hard to track down because of the international demand from collectors, but the wines from the Mitjaviles' second property, Roc des Cambes, are more moderately priced and easier to find. It lies in the Cotes de Bourg appellation 25 miles west of St. Emilion, and its 24 acres of vines are planted on a slope that rises directly from the right bank of the Gironde estuary. The mix of varieties is 60% Merlot, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Cabernet Franc and 5% Malbec.

The 1990 Roc des Cambes was a revelation for an appellation that has no tradition for premium wine production. It smells of blackberry and chocolate with just a hint of something wild, something animal. Not only does it have a remarkable fullness of aroma and flavor for a Cotes de Bourg wine, the harmony is perfect: neither alcohol, fruit, richness or tannin in any way out of balance.

"The tannins of a great red wine have the feel of a silk carpet, which means that they must be dense but extremely fine in grain," Mitjavile says when I comment upon this harmony.

Not only to my taste but also by his own definition, this is a great wine. He looks surprised when I tell him what I think of the 1990 Roc des Cambes.

"Emilie, Emilie, come here! You've got to taste this," he calls out to his wife excitedly. Only when a broad grin spreads across her face does he too glow with pleasure.

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Sources

Tertre Roteboeuf: The Wine Club, Santa Ana and Wally's, West Los Angeles have the 1995. The 1996 vintage is also being sold as futures by the Wine Exchange, Orange, and Hi-Times Cellars, Costa Mesa. Twenty-Twenty Wine Co., West Los Angeles, has a few older vintages.

Roc des Cambes: Hi-Times Wine Cellars, Costa Mesa; Wally's, West L.A.; Wine House, West L.A.; and The Wine Merchant, Beverly Hills. Also, The Wine Club, Santa Ana, and Wine Exchange, Orange, are selling 1996 futures.

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