"I can't remember the last time I wasn't ratted at this time of day." Looking less like Obélix, more like a youthful Jean de Florette, Gérard Depardieu the winemaker has just nibbled his way through a lunch of only bread and water at The Ritz in Paris.
Depardieu is here to give his backing to a new wine venture with his friend and business partner Bernard Magrez, managing director of the giant drinks business William Pitters, the man behind the most successful Bordeaux brand, Malesan.
Why all the fuss – and sobriety? Depardieu, who owns Château de Tigné at Anjou in the Loire, has just bought a small château in Bordeaux. More than that, he plans to turn Château Gadet, this unprepossessing little Médoc property of only two hectares, into a new-style garage wine. The suave 65-year-old Magrez also owns a number of top châteaux including Pape-Clément and La Tour Carnet. Together the two men plan to create three more new garage wines, one in the south of France, one in Morocco and another in Bordeaux.
Garage wines, so named because the originator, Jean-Luc Thunevin, made his first wine in his garage 10 years ago, are breaking the mould. From modest little properties like Gadet the upstarts of the so-called garage movement have succeeded in shaking up the Bordeaux establishment. In the 2000 vintage, dubbed the greatest ever by the influential critic Robert Parker, Magrez himself caused a stir by receiving the accolade of a 99 out of 100 score from Parker for his Magrez Fombrauge. That's more than Lafite, Latour or any of the grand First Growths. All for a wine made from a mere three hectares of the 63-hectare Château Fombrauge in Saint Emilion.
Michel Rolland, the winemaking éminence not so grise behind so many of the new garage wines has defined the phenomenon. "Garage wines come from small vineyards where people are doing everything in their power to make the best wines possible. They involve endless care – discarding unripe bunches, for instance – manual harvesting, meticulous sorting of the grapes and the most sophisticated cellar techniques. It's actually what Burgundy has been doing for years."
Garage wines are so à la mode they command exceptional prices normally reserved for famous châteaux with a recognized track record. Do they really justify them? They're also controversial because the very French concept of terroir, the sanctity of a particular plot of vineyard, is being turned on its head to put the winemaker on a pedestal.
As yet it's too early to say, but discarding hi-tech for the many labour intensive operations required to make a garage wine means considerable extra work. According to Depardieu, "They are wines which have been transformed from the relatively mundane by special craftsmen; they are personalised wines of haute couture."
By raising standards of care to the highest level, they exploit to the limit the potential of hitherto untested vineyards. At the same time they give hope to owners who were never previously in with a shout. This mirror image of the New World has explosive potential in a region like Bordeaux, with its certainties based on time-honoured tradition. For his part, Depardieu clearly relishes his new role as a revolutionary among the Bordeaux establishment.