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Ric arrives at Tertre Roteboeuf

June 28, 2019

One of my very best winery visits ever took place on the very hot afternoon of 27 June 2019 when temperatures soared to 39 degrees Celsius at Saint-Emilion. Air-conditioning in Europe is notoriously under-powered, even on board the coach we were traveling, and we were severely cooked as we desperately searched for this elusive tiny non-classified property of just 5.7 ha known to be sited atop a steep hill. GPS was absolutely correct about the location. It was just that we had driven too fast past the almost inconspicuous pair of stone pillars where the words TERTRE ROTEBOEUF were etched in red. It was way past the appointed hour of 2.30 PM by the time we drew up to its short narrow driveway. The man himself, M. Francois Mitjavile, was on hand to receive us as we knocked on the door of the very modest building that is also his residence. Thankfully, Francois was in a kind forgiving mood as he welcomed us into his naturally-cooled living room where we gratefully sank onto the sofa and extra chairs that he’d drawn up.

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Francois Mitjavile

The whole room was strewn with books of all sorts that cover a wide range of subjects, particularly in music, the arts and literature. Even his coffee table is made up of dozens of hardcover books piled up to knee height.

Bearing more than a passing resemblance to a slimmed-down Yvés Montand, Francois Mitjavile clearly is a man who has absorbed everything that the university of life has taught him and he has learnt well. Having distilled the essence of his winemaking philosophy since he started Chateau Le Tertre Roteboeuf in 1978 (he had spent 1975-76 making the wines of Ch Figeac!), Francois began to expound his thoughts to us over the next 20 minutes in excellent elegant English just lightly tinted with the French accent. In order for wine to fulfil the ideals of Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, Francois feels that the flavours of a wine produced from a particular location must reflect the originality of that location. To do so, it must be related to local civilisation (the agricultural and food habits of people there past and present), the soils and terroir (largely limestone and clay in one single block) and whatever each vintage brings. He notes that meats, cheeses and domestic produce in the region since the Roman times have been imbued with a natural richness. As such, the wines produced must have the savouriness to digest the richness of foods, particularly during cold winters. To achieve this, Francois feels the wine he makes need to be wines of maceration. Technically, it means the grapes have to be in a state of slight degradation at the time of harvest, having absorbed more moisture such that the skins are slightly fragile. You can tell he is against early harvesting to “secure the vintage”. Francois is not looking for power or structure or great acidity. His wines must achieve depth, freshness, elegance and grace in a harmonious dynamic balance. There must be flavour of structure, not aggression of structure. The aromas and flavours must evoke an emotional response, just as in great music, rather than impress upon the mind. When asked what would be his hallmark signature, he replies: “You do not make what you want. You express the situation. Therefore, you do not own it.” There is no sorting or selection of grapes. There is no second label. Francois produces whatever the vintage conditions allow him to. And unlike most other estates, Francois uses only one and the same cooper all the time – Radoux – which understands him well. Listening to him, one is left in no doubt that Francois has been transfigured through a lifelong process of intellectual rigour.

20190627_154709We moved to the modest cellars which has not been renovated for decades but from which he creates his magic. Francois was obviously in a generous mood as he poured whatever was asked of him: “Is 2018 truly the best vintage yet?”; “A wine retailer was trying to sell me the 2003 Roc de Cambes but I thought the 1995 may be preferable. Is it true?”; “How is 2018 different from 2017?”; “1997 was an off-year…”. Francois doesn’t really answer your questions. He prefers that you discover the answers yourself. As to the most important question of why has Tertre Rotebouef eschewed the Saint-Emilion classification totally, it is simply because Francois has no use for that. Not for him the potential financial gains or power. He is happy doing what he feels is right. Even the word “Chateau” has been omitted on the label. Maverick or rebel? Genius or method? The answer, perhaps, is all of the above. His wines sing most naturally and effortlessly. They are beautiful without calling attention to themselves. Merci beaucoup Francois for your time, your brilliance and your hard work. This has been the masterclass of masterclasses.

2018 Tertre Roteboeuf. Tasted from barrel. Deeply coloured. Arresting aromas of dark roses and red currants with savoury overtones, yet with an expressive delicate fragrance. Explodes on the palate with a lovely layered depth, displaying great richness, concentration and sublime acidity with a savoury hint, superbly fresh and ripe, culminating in a lovely even persistence. One is never conscious of its understated structure. This is a wine of supreme feminine confidence. No wonder Francois feels the 2018 is his best ever. Outstanding.

2017 Tertre Roteboeuf. Tasted from vat. Darker with a more developed earthy dusty tone marked by thyme and Asian herbs, displaying very good level of fullness and concentration of ripe dark plums, cherries and dark currants on the medium-full palate. Highly supple, imbued with minerally elements and fine acidity that imparted some spiciness at the sides, structured with svelte understated tannins. Distinctly masculine.

2003 Roc de Cambes. Popped and poured. Lovely exuberance of ripe red fruits, currants and cherries on the nose that carried well onto the palate with great presence amid overtones of velvety sweet meat, yet very subtly structured with gentle elegance. Very fresh and fleshy, finishing well without any trace of heat stress. Excellent.

1995 Roc de Cambes. Popped and poured. Medium-bodied. Fleshy and relaxed, seamlessly layered with a wonderful complex of mature red fruits, cherries and redcurrants that proffer subtle seductive tertiary characters, gently effusive, displaying a certain cool ripeness with subdued acidity and tannins that are barely perceptible, finishing with a gentle glow. Most lovely. Caught at its absolute best.

1997 Tertre Roteboeuf. Absolutely glorious, fully developed with deep layers of red fruits, dark cherries, currants and savoury smoked meat that exude sensual complexity with rich elegance. Superbly integrated. A complete wine. So much for so-called “off” vintages. Outstanding.

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