The death of HENRI BONNEAU at 78 years recently brought to a close an era when growers could be subversive in the face of “the authorities”. Now, if you have 1% too much GRENACHE GRIS or TERRET NOIR in your vineyard, it is swiftly sniffed out by the forces of law and order – usually young men and women in their twenties, probably clad in white.
Central governments and bodies hate such outsiders, since the former thrive on homogeneity, what is written in the dossier. If the dossier says you cannot exceed 10% of alternative varieties, then those offending percentages in excess must be ripped out, or your wine is declassified.
Well now, this becomes quite funny, since many growers have started to show they can’t be bothered with some of these petty fogging rules, meaning a rapid increase away from VIN DE PAYS and its complicated names – COLLINES RHODANIENNES, PRINCIPAUTÉ D’ORANGE etc - and towards the broader, less restrictive category of VIN DE FRANCE.
My thoughts turn to JÉRÔME BRESSY of DOMAINE GOURT DE MAUTENS, who abandoned the RASTEAU appellation due to hassle from the authorities over his growing too many less recommended vines – PICPOUL BLANC, PICPOUL GRIS, CARIGNAN and others, which he considers form part of the local heritage, unlike the variety that the INAO (INSTITUT OF APPELLATIONS OF ORIGINE) constantly bangs the drum for – the SYRAH, a variety that should remain in cooler areas rather than being scatter bombed all across the SOUTHERN RHÔNE to the shores of the Mediterranean.
It is no surprise that VINSOBRES, with vineyards at 400 metres, is a source for JEAN-LOUIS CHAVE in his CÔTES DU RHÔNE MON COEUR, made up of 40% SYRAH. In recent vintages such as 2013 and 2014, the SYRAH has also performed well thanks to those two cool summers. But put SYRAH in the deep clay soils of RASTEAU, and it can risk giving wines that are jammy, and lacking all-important cut.
Refuseniks such as MONSIEUR BRESSY are hard to find these days. But when I started out in the 1970s, vinegrowing and winemaking were much more liberal, the actions of the growers often guided by intuition, available time and effort, even hearsay. In this Kingdom of The Individual, HENRI BONNEAU held a sometimes rather cultivated place, whereas the REYNAUD family of CHÂTEAU RAYAS, for example, were genuinely out on a limb, eschewing much contact with the outside world.
The fact that HENRI lived in the village made him immediately more visible, and yet the company he most wanted to keep as a natural starting point was that of his fellow vignerons and vigneronnes. For yes, he had a twinkle in his eye when meeting ISABEL FERRANDO of DOMAINE SAINT-PRÉFERT or the ARMENIER sisters, SOPHIE and CATHERINE, of DOMAINE DE MARCOUX.
As to his relations with the Fourth Estate, I can only say they were uneven. I first visited him in the 1980s; in my first book, written in the early 1970s, it was his father MARCEL who ran the estate, but I do not, alas, have any tasting notes from that period.
Well, HENRI received me courteously in his warren of grimy rooms that comprised his cellars. We tasted, discussed, I noted things down. As I was about to leave, he requested me not to write about him, a request to which I acceded. If he didn’t want people tramping along to see him, then so be it. I also discovered that the redoubtable PROFESSOR ROBERT MAYBERRY, who wrote a long and detailed book on the SOUTHERN RHÔNE, very much a work of loving, academic appreciation, had likewise maintained silence on MONSIEUR BONNEAU.
I continued to visit every now and then, and remained silent in print on him. However, when I read a report by ROBERT PARKER JR on HENRI some years later, I somewhat felt that what was good for the goose was good for the gander. Accordingly, I revisited him and wrote an essay of some pages in the 1992 edition of THE WINES OF THE RHÔNE.
That was the turning point! At one juncture, I wrote the following: “his family have worked in the same maze of interconnected cellars under Châteauneuf-du-Pape since the time of Napoleon III, and there are some wonderful winding nooks and crannies that M.Bonneau knows well as he moves around the rough earth-strewn surface, muttering obscenities about Napoleon Bonaparte. Any tasting in the company of a Briton is interrupted with a rapid, Provençal-infested verbal swipe about the wrong person being burned at the stake – Joan of Arc and not Bonaparte – before he wanders off to another dull, grimy cask, full of marvellous young red wine.”
After learning about this, for he was certainly not an English speaker or reader, Monsieur Bonneau barred me from tasting chez lui. I ran into him occasionally in the street, here and there. One exchange recalls the old PETER SELLERS joke from an INSPECTOR CLOUSEAU film “does your dog bite?”): I saw him in the street up the hill from the fountain, on the way to the church. I saluted him as he stood watching a mason on scaffolding that obscured the façades of the houses go about his work on some outside walls, a pretty good job, it seemed to me.
JL-L: “that mason is doing a good piece of work...”
HB: “he is.”
JL-L: “your house is going to look in good shape after this.”
HB: “it’s not my house.”
I tried to enter via the good offices of the ARMENIER sisters of DOMAINE DE MARCOUX, but once you cross a Provençal, that is that, as I know only too well after living in AIX-EN-PROVENCE from 1972 to 1975. HENRI was having none of me, at all, punto final.
I therefore tasted his wines every now and then, not in any formal sequence. In hot summer vintages, I found them heated, and potent to the point of headiness. In the cooler vintages, I preferred them – their balance was better, and they sang more. Of course, yields were desperately low; I once visited his vineyard during the Forbidden Years, and it was a shock to see how many gaps there were – dead plants hadn’t been replaced, and the impression given was one of doing just enough.
There were wines of greatness mixed in – his 2005 RÉSERVE DES CÉLESTINS was a six star wine – complete, interesting, with bursts of freshness and the gras texture of traditional Châteauneuf. His trio of CÉLESTINS 1988, 1989 and 1990 was splendid, a real gale force of intensity blowing through them - “three glorious, exuberant vintages”, as I wrote at the time.
HENRI BONNEAU leaves an unrepeatable legacy; his bottles of course are there for the delectation of mainly rich collectors nowadays, but under all the Provençal bluster and canny actions lay a man with the welfare and renown of his village deeply rooted at the centre of his being. He enhanced the life and times of Châteauneuf-du-Pape and I salute him for that and for all his wondrous foibles.