Gerard Bertrand – Winery of the Year

The Wine Enthusiast, a leading Amercian wine magazine, recently named their European winery of the year for 2011.  And the winery is Gerard Bertrand in the Languedoc Roussillon.   I’ve been meaning to write about Gerard Bertrand for a while now, and this might be just the kick in the pants I needed.

The short version

A lot of the visitors to this site are skimming or looking for very specific information (pairing suggestions, tasting notes, etc.) so I have to put this up at the top of the page for the sake of clarity.  This post is a story about getting to know Gerard Bertrand.  It might get a little long winded, and the subject is complex.  If you don’t want to read the whole thing, here’s the short version:

Gerard Bertrand is a complicated cookie. It’s easy to criticize him (his organization is so big that it makes a bigger target), but he’s actually a stand up guy.  I had a relatively negative impression of him when I first came to the region, but I have really come around despite my prejudice against big business, economies of scale, and government subsidies. I still don’t know him very well, but I think he’s good people.

Now that’s a super simplified version.  I really hope that readers will take a few minutes to read this whole article.  Because regions like the Languedoc Roussillon are being shaped every day by a handful of people like Bertrand.

Obviously, it takes the communal work of every grape-grower and winemaker in the region to make the Languedoc Roussillon run.  But there are a few point men (and point women) who lead the charge in their own ways and act as poster children for the entire region.

After spending a few hours with Gerard Bertrand, I feel like people don’t give him enough credit for being a good guy.  They give him credit for being a keen business man, or a shrewd investor, a good schmoozer, and lots of other things, but I don’t think many people ever tried to convince me that he’s just a nice person.

So that’s what this is about.

Gerard Bertrand’s Reptuation

Here’s the excerpt from the Wine Enthusiast:

European Winery of the Year

Gérard Bertrand, Gérard Bertrand
Both landowner and partner of the best winegrowers in the South of France, Gérard Bertrand manages over 325 hectares of vineyards across varying Languedoc terroirs. He fully understands the movement toward expressive, well-balanced and elegant wines that remain accessible and affordable.

When I first came to the region, this was exactly the kind of award I’d expect Bertrand to receive.  Last year, it went to the Portuguese winery responsible for Mateus.  And in a three line bio of the man, you mention he’s got over 300 hectares around the region, maybe with a qualifier like “accessible and affordable” (which is sometimes a euphemism for “sells to supermarkets”).

And the first few times I ran into Gerard Bertrand, it was at trade fairs (ViniSud 2009 and LIWF 2010).  In both situations the retired rugby legend was wearing a suit (which might have emphasized his height and gaunt frame to make him look more than a little imposing).  He seemed a little curt with the people around him.  I mistook this for self-importance, and I projected a lot onto the man because of assumptions I tend to make about large scale producers.  I was always willing to admit that his wine was solid, but I never really gave the guy a chance.

I visited Cigalus, his flagship biodynamic estate, and enjoyed a Bertrand-guided tour.  It was neat hearing him talk about the vineyard and his operations.  Here’s a short clip where he talks about long term changes in the wine world and the generational time scale of winemaking:

Hearing him talk about perspective and patience started to convince me that he might be a lot cooler than I originally thought.  But at the same time, these kind of tours are often put-on.  I wasn’t 100% convinced yet that he was being genuine.

The real Gérard Bertrand

At the jazz fest Bertrand promotes on his primary vineyard, l’Hospitalet, I got to spend more time with him.  And I saw a totally different side of the man.  He was laid back and in his element.  A serious but friendly man who clearly enjoyed sharing a nice moment with the people around him.

The only thing I posted from the jazz fest was a helicopter ride over the Corbieres and Massif de la Clape.  Admittedly, that is very bling bling.  And it’s very generous of him to fly me around like that.  But that is not what I’m referring to when I talk about sharing.  At dinner, he had old neighbors around the table, other winemakers, silly American winemake/bloggers, and so on.  He wasn’t just automatically fulfilling the functions of a host.  He was hanging out with his neighbors.  And he was being really nice to everybody.  And really honest too.  There were some moments of frightening intimacy in the conversation.

There was one point when Gérard talked about the fires that had ravaged the Massif de la Clape in recent years.  This is probably worthy of its own post, but I’ll explain briefly that grape vines play an important role in stopping the spread of fires on the Mediterranean coast.  Bertrand advocates planting more vines on the Massif de la Clape as a way to limit the destructive fires we saw in 2010.  You should have seen the look on his face when he talked about that 2010 fire.  He spoke of the smell of burning leather and smoke as he and his friends ran up and down the massif trying to steer the fire away from a nearby village.  Okay, this is starting to sound like an Ayn Rand novel.  But maybe that’s appropriate. :D

I don’t know if this post achieved what I want it to.  I don’t want to pretend Gerard Bertrand is my hero or that he is going to save the Languedoc.  I just wanted to explain how I was skeptical about his character and it turned out he’s nice and seems like he has very good intentions.  We actually have a lot in common and I feel pretty bad that it took me several years to get to know him a little.  And I’m not important enough to name him European Winery of the Year like the Wine Enthusiast did.  But maybe what I can do on this blog is tell you that he’s a stand up guy.  I’m happy that he’s one of the point men for the entire region.

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  • By Languedoc Villa, December 18, 2011 @ 5:03 am

    Very insightful. Sometimes its hard to reconcile the vast scale of the Bertrand business with the desire to see small independent producers thrive and survive but there is no doubting the passion and commitment he brings and this will help put Languedoc wines closer to centre stage for those who have not yet been converted!

  • By Bob R., December 18, 2011 @ 6:46 am

    I recently went to a wine shop tasting of a line of Gerard Bertrand’s wines here in Maine (USA). I had an open mind because I love Languedoc wines and read good things about his winery operation. However, I was underwhelmed by the wines, especially the reds, which i would have expected to like (I bought a Viognier). While I didn’t consider them bad, I found them very mainstream wines without what I would call “Languedoc character.” The distributor, who knows my taste, said he had a feeling that they wouldn’t be my style; this line was basically made for the American market. Among other things, the packaging was very elegant. Well, I guess anything that helps sell and promote Languedoc wines in America is good.

  • By Ryan O'Connell, December 18, 2011 @ 7:00 am

    @villa @Bob Thanks for sharing. I don’t like overemphasizing the difference between small producers and larger scale productions, but it’s a subject that comes up pretty often anyway. But I guess what I’m trying to convey is that the brand Gerard Bertrand is big but the character of the individual is a lot like many other winemakers I’ve met in the region. Does that make sense? Thanks for your input ;D

    As to the quality of the wine, he has a huge range so I can’t speak for all of it. I think his supermarket Hospitalet cuvées are very solid wines and the cigalus white is a stunner. I’ve had some wines from him that were a bit pricey in my opinion, but I haven’t had bad wine with his name on it. Then again, they’re obviously showing me their best when I visit. Thanks for sharing your tasting experience :)

  • By Wink Lorch, December 18, 2011 @ 2:04 pm

    Excellent post, Ryan, that was obviously not easy to write. I also had misgivings about Gerard until I spent time with the man, and overall I too think he is doing a good, and much needed job for the Languedoc. A couple of years ago I was fortunate enough also to enjoy some of his hospitality and wrote a post about it:
    Since that visit I’ve tasted a few of his wines on and off, and at every level I find them correct, but perhaps not exciting, yet, the man is a good person doing a good thing, for this giant of a region, in his own way, as you are doing in your own way.

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