Like grower, like grape

Could it be that the characteristics of the world's great wines - the brilliance, the profundity, the stubborn tics and quirks - are detectable in the personalities of their makers? Anthony Rose matches the faces to the chateaux. Photographs by Clare Park
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
"I believe I can have a pretty good idea of what a wine will taste like, simply by talking to the winemaker for a while," says John Armit, wine merchant to the well-heeled.

Cue for a game of blind tasting in which you have to guess not just vintage, location and grape variety, but the name and nature of the grower.

Armit has recently dipped a toe in the New World but, for now, his exclusive list is largely rooted in the classic regions of Europe and in some of its most famous vineyards. And it was with the aim of showing the human face behind their wines that he commissioned the photographer Clare Park, a former model, ballerina and ex-Max Factor girl, to take pictures for his 1997/1998 catalogue.

"I didn't want the classical picture of the Burgundian in his cellar and the Bordelais outside his chateau," he explains, reflecting on the choice of black and white over colour, and the deliberately studied poses. "I was looking for sensitivity, depth and insight."

Sensitivity, depth, insight are, after all, prerequisites for the creation of fine wines. From the cradle to the table, grapes demand nurturing. Working within the limitations of soil and climate, a great grower will bring to bear not just money, but force of personality and individual flair upon production. Care in the vineyard, control in the cellar and the hard task of finding a home for the product all entail intuition, judgement and detailed decision- making.

Today's top-notch producers have to be more than mere chips off old dynastic blocks. Those featured here are all driven not simply by a recognition that they are trustees of a valuable heritage but by a passion for the product and an ambition to continue to refine it.

Anne-Claude Leflaive, Domaine Leflaive, Puligny Montrachet

The modern era for a family whose records in Puligny stretch back to 1717 began with the creation of the domaine in 1905 by Anne-Claude's colourful grandfather, Joseph. He had lived in Indochina and worked as an engineer on the first French submarine before losing a fortune and returning to Puligny, sadder and wiser. The footloose Anne-Claude lived the exotic life herself for a while, first in Morocco, where she became a champion windsurfer, then in the Ivory Coast. After the death of her father, Vincent, Anne-Claude took over the running of the domaine in 1990 with her cousin, Olivier, but she now runs it single-handedly with the able assistance of winemaker Pierre Morey. It's too early to say if Anne-Claude's adoption of the biodynamic growing techniques advocated by Rudolf Steiner have influenced the style of the wines but, after a dip in the mid-1980s when wines became overstretched, the domaine is rapidly returning to form.

Angelo Gaja, Gaja wines

When Giovanni Gaja heard his son was planting Cabernet Sauvignon, he shook his head and muttered `damagi' (`What a pity', in the local Piedmontese dialect). Angelo Gaja called the wine Darmagi. While not reticent about taking on the French, Gaja's success in championing Piedmont's heritage of local grapes has inspired a new generation of producers, recasting Barolo and Barbaresco as great, modern Italian reds. Gaja is a purist and a perfectionist with an absolute belief in the inherent quality and individual character of Nebbiolo and Barbera, the traditional red wine varieties of Piedmont. An acute business sense goes hand in hand with a tireless determination to promote his wines on the international stage. His Barbaresco and Barolo are among Italy's finest reds, and demonstrate, in contrast to Tuscany's much-vaunted Sassicaia and Solaia, that a wine doesn't have to be made of French grape varieties to be world-class. Mere mortals may balk at his prices, but of all Italy's great reds Gaja's wines are among the most self-evidently Italian in style.

Christine Valette, Chateau Troplong Mondot

Soon after she took over this Saint Emilion estate in 1981, Christine Valette engaged as a consultant the celebrated Bordeaux winemaker Michel Rolland. He advised picking the grapes later, fermenting longer, and increasing the amount of new-oak maturation. A score of 98 out of 100 awarded to the 1990 vintage by the influential American critic Robert Parker, was testimony to Valette's - and Rolland's - efforts. Some regard the modern style as over extracted. Others, not least Valette herself, hold that Troplong Mondot merits promotion to Premier Grand Cru Classe status in the revised classification of Saint Emilion.

Jean-Marie Raveneau, Domaine Francois Raveneau

Jean-Marie Raveneau's father Francois always said you can tell the best sites in Chablis by the snow. The greatest vineyards are all on slopes, while the best plots are those that are first to melt in the sun. And the Raveneau family holdings, although diminutive, are all in prime Grand and Premier-cru sites. Jean-Marie may look like a gypsy traveller, but he has both feet firmly rooted in the Kimmeridgian soil from which he believes great Chablis derives its character. He ferments his Chardonnay in a cramped, barrel-vaulted cellar beneath one of the town's main streets, producing intense, long-lived wines of concentration, personality and bite.

Jacques Guinaudeau, Chateau Lafleur

Since the intense, green-fingered Jacques Guinaudeau and his wife, Sylvie, took over Chateau Lafleur from Sylvie's aunt, Marie Robin, in 1985, the quality of this opulent red Bordeaux has been further refined. With 4.5 hectares, production is minuscule: only 1,500-odd cases, depending on the vintage, have been made following Jacques's decision to cut production and to make a second wine, whose name, Pensees de Lafleur, is presumably for those of us who can only dream of Lafleur itself - the celebrated first-growth 1992 recently fetched pounds 7,700 a case, twice the price of the more famous Chateau Lafite and Chateau Latour.

Jean-Marc and Alix Roulot, Domaine Guy Roulot

Jean-Marc Roulot trained as a classical actor but returned to run the domaine with his sister Michele and mother Genevieve in 1988. Alix is the sister of Etienne de Montille of Domaine de Montille in Volnay. The Roulot estate was built up by Guy, Jean-Marc's father, from vineyards acquired in the Cote de Beaune appellations of Meursault, Auxey Duresses and Montelie. Its best wines come from two Premiers Cru vineyards, Les Charmes and Les Perrieres. Jean-Marc still manages to fit in some acting, recently writing and starring in his own production staged in Versailles and Paris. The subject? The wines of Meursault.

Christian and Cherise Moueix, Chateau Petrus

The Moueix family were upstart outsiders from the harsh Correze region of central France when Christian's grandfather, Jean, bought the Saint Emilion property Chateau Fonroque in 1930. Christian's father, the urbane Jean-Pierre Moueix, expanded the business on the strength of selling what was at the time unfashionable Bordeaux from the Right Bank. Presiding over the incredible success of Chateau Petrus, one of the world's most exclusive wines, Christian has inherited his father's combination of business acumen and sensitivity. He has not only consolidated the reputation of Pomerol and expanded into Fronsac, but co-produces an exceptional Napa Valley red, Dominus. Like his father, he is an avid collector of paintings and sculpture. It was through the art world that he met his sparky Chinese-American wife, Cherise.