SUCH was the immediacy of Bernadette Villars' presence, with her short jet black hair and boyish looks, that the news of her death while out walking in the Pyrenees was greeted with stunned disbelief by the Bordeaux wine trade. Villars was not only popular and much admired in the Bordeaux region, but also widely respected in the international wine community, particularly in Britain. Only this summer she had presented a paper at the Institute of Masters of Wine Third International Symposium in Bristol (in English, which, along with Spanish, she spoke fluently), expounding in typical detail on her winemaking techniques at Chateau Chasse-Spleen.
Like a chef juggling with three top restaurants simultaneously, Villars ran three prestigious Bordeaux chateaux in the Medoc, Chateau Chasse-Spleen in Moulis, Chateau Haut-Bages-Liberal and Chateau La Gurgue in Margaux. Yet she remained unaffacted by success, and it was like a breath of fresh air to visit her after the stiff formality generally encountered in the Medoc. Chateau Chasse- Spleen ('Chase the blues away', as she liked to translate it) is technically lower in the arcane Bordeaux pecking order than Haut- Bages-Liberal, which was classified in the famous 1855 ranking, yet, as the jewel in her crown and the property of which she was most proud, it has consistently commanded higher prices than many a classified property.
In 1976 her father Jacques Merlaut bought Chasse-Spleen and put Bernadette Villars in charge, an opportunity she relished. She brought in her mentor, Professor Emile Peynaud, but resisted his advice to change the style to make the wine more approachable. Through meticulous vinification and blending, attention to hygiene and the careful use of oak barrels, she brought the style of the wine into line with modern tastes without sacrificing what she passionately believed to be a tradition worth preserving.
Born in Bordeaux in 1943, Bernadette Merlaut lived in Paris until she was 17 and only saw a vineyard for the first time a year later. At the age of 22, she married Philippe Villars, a Bordeaux boy whose family was steeped in the wine trade. She taught history and geography before realising her real vocation. At Bordeaux University she studied oenology under Emile Peynaud, who was an inspiration to her. 'M Peynaud,' she said, 'taught me how to bridge the gap between academic study and working with practical people - les hommes de terrain.'
The hallmark of her perfectionist approach lay in her scrupulous attention to detail in the vineyard and cellar. She admitted finding it hard as a woman in a man's world to become involved in winemaking. Her mother disapproved of her working at all. Yet she was encouraged by Peynaud's view that women are often better winetasters than men, and she believed it was sometimes easier for a woman who has worked at home with children 'to see everything together and pay attention to every part of the process'. It was typical of her commonsense approach to keep her prices reasonable. As a result, Chateau Chasse- Spleen has always been very much in demand. 'Il vaut mieux etre le premier dans son village' ('Better to be a big fish in a small pond'), she would say of Chasse-Spleen when asked if she thought it belonged in the 1855 classification.
Though she spent most of her time in the vineyard and cellar, she still found time to devote herself to her husband and two daughters, as well as carry out her duties as vice-president of the family group Bernard Taillan France. BTF, created by her father, is one of the largest French wine groups, a holding company for, among others, the Bordeaux wine merchant Ginestet (of which Philippe Villars was managing director), as well as Chantovent and Ropiteau Freres.
It was with her husband that she had gone to their weekend retreat at Bareges in the Pyrenees. The alarm was raised when neither of them turned up for their Tuesday morning appointments. It is believed that Bernadette Villars died of exposure after falling into a crevasse on Sunday 29 November while on her way to get help for her husband, who is thought to have fallen ill. She was found on Wednesday 2 December. His body has not yet been recovered.
(Photograph omitted)Reuse content