In December I visited Château La Rose Bellevue on the right bank of the Gironde River in Bordeaux. Les Kellen from Blaye brought me there, as he had two years earlier. Once again we visited his friends and family winery managers/owners, Jérôme and Valérie. Below are some notes from our first meeting two years ago.
Standing on the east bank of the Gironde River, bathed in sunshine, Valérie wore blue jeans, a black sweater, a black kerchief and a jean jacket. Jérôme wore a loose brown sweater. He had jet black hair and energy that just did not stop. He had inherited the task of managing the château, including 45 hectares of vineyard, after his father died.
“Before it was my father, now I have to decide. And there is more competition, everywhere.”
Jérôme’s parents had tended three hectares of vineyards, saving money (even skipping meals) so that they could buy adjacent tracts of land, piecemeal, during their lives.
“They started from zero, you know,” Valérie explained. “Very courageous people.”
Valérie grew up in the north of France drinking beer instead of wine. When she was seventeen years old she took a school trip to a brewery in Brussels, where she first learned to appreciate the difference in the taste of different beers. She came from a family of traders, and brought her marketing acumen to Château La Rose Bellevue.
Together, the couple produces 300,000 bottles a year, predominantly reds. Typical for the right bank, the dominant grape variety used in these blends is Merlot, which is blended with Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. Their white wines include Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon Gris, and Muscadelle.
Five of us crammed into a two door Peugeot 202. Les then drove fifteen kilometers to Chez Olga for lunch. While we ate an appetizer – plates of six oysters apiece – Jérôme explained the difference that Valérie had made to the vineyard since their marriage eight years earlier.
“Different fashion, different style, different design,” he said.
“I thought like a consumer,” said Valérie. Knowing that the winery needed a stronger image, she pushed the marketing – which included a website, brochures, and a bilingual roadside sign advertising the business.
To begin aggressively marketing wine, Valérie began communicating with distributors directly, traveling the world to meet contacts. She now stays with friends when traveling whenever possible, including during visits to the city of Seattle and the state of Montana in the United States.
“Nice for skiing,” she added with a smile.
Valérie thought it amusing that Montana laws prohibits her from giving wine tastings, while French law prohibits her from serving cheese and food with tastings at the La Rose Bellevue château. She and Jérôme have to navigate the vagaries of different regulatory landscapes to market their wares worldwide.
Wine is Jérôme’s life. He is lean and fit and filled with energy.
“I don’t know what I would do differently,” he admitted while swirling a glass of Sauvignon Blanc at the elegantly set lunch table.
For Valérie, wine is about networking. “A job where you can make lots of relationships,” she said.
We ate a main course of roast beef, matched with a bottle of La Rose Bellevue’s ‘prestige’ blend – 75% Merlot and 25% Cabernet Sauvignon. We then ate crème brûlée and drank small mugs of strong coffee.
Valérie and Jérôme explained that for all the nice indoor machinery they have, the importance is pruning. Valérie emphasized that “Eighty percent of the quality is done at the vines, by hand.”
For the couple, wine making is simply about producing a good quality product that makes customers happy and their business profitable. These wines don’t have to be expensive or exclusive.
We drove back to the château, buzzed and relaxed.
Jérôme’s winery has been in his family for four generations. He spent three years as an apprentice in Champagne, and then traveled to Australia. One reason was because twenty years earlier an Australian bicyclist had stopped by their château. He asked for water, was given wine, and then requested work. He labored for months before returning to his home. Years later, he returned for a second stint. The memory of this worker stayed with Jérôme since he was a boy, firing up his own enthusiasm to visit the land down under.
Has there been a trend of change in Bordeaux?
“Softer,” said Valérie. “People are thinking that with Bordeaux wines, there are lots of tannins. But by harvesting at different times, by controlling the wood, we’re mixing traditional and new techniques. This is our philosophy: we are making wines for drinking. The generation of our parents would think that eight year old wines were still too young.”
And what about across the Gironde River, on the left bank where blends are more accentuated toward Cabernet Sauvignon, where some wines are hugely expensive, and where some châteaux are massive and sprawling?
“We call it Disneyland,” said Valérie.
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