TERTRE ROTEBOEUF- ONE OF THE BEST BORDEAUX WINES - AND THIS PROPERTY ISN'T EVEN CLASSIFIED!
By Izak Litwar
My very first meeting with Francois Mitjavile and Château Tertre Roteboeuf took place in May 1987, after I read wine-guru Robert Parker's superlatives about this small property in his "The Wine Advocate". Meeting with the articulate and eloquent Francois Mitjavile and his wine surpassed all my expectations. The things he explained about soil, grapes varieties and vinification, were so captivating to listen to, that four hours flew away at rocket speed. His wine was so eminent, that I fell in love with it at first sip!
This Grand Cru property, situated in commune St.Laurent-des-Combes, few kilometers south-east of the picturesque town Saint-Émilion, is a small vigneron house build in the 18th century. The name of this property can sound a little strange – it refers to the time many centuries ago, when vineyard and vines have not existed yet here. The hillside was used to feed the cattle then and the name "Roteboeuf" originates from that.
Francois Mitjavile took over Tertre Roteboeuf in 1978 from his father-in-low (Gilard family), and this vintage was the first one, he made entirely by himself. Before that, he worked 2 years at the famous Château Figeac, and afterwards spent several years at Tertre Roteboeuf, in order to learn as much as possible about wine.
His breakthrough on the wine scene was 1985-vintage. A new cult-wine was born, and since then the quality has improved all the time, so now Tertre Roteboeuf can easily compete with Premiers Grand Cru Classés in Saint-Émilion and the best 2. Crus Classés in Haut-Medoc, and even challenge First Growths.
There are 5.7 ha of vines planted with 85% Merlot and 15% Cabernet Franc. Merlot-vines are on average 45 years old, while Cabernet Franc ones are 5 years older. The subsoil consists of four different kinds of clay, which are resting on the bed of lime-stones. This combination of subsoil which is typical for the majority of vineyard in Saint-Émilion "Côtes" (slopes), is described as "cold soil", because clay needs a long time to be warmed up, and lime-stones are always humid and cold. It means that grapes get the opportunity to get maximum advantage of the sun and reach perfect maturity very late.
In the really good vintages, you will often see in Tertre Roteboeuf's vineyard, that grapes are not really ripe in the skins (lacking phenolic ripeness). When skins are ripe, then grapes end containing sugar that corresponds to 14-15% alcohol, and "everybody" is happy.
This cold soil is just like created for Merlot, but not for Cabernet Sauvignon, which rather prefers the so-called "hot soil" (gravel and quartz pebbles, which reflect sun-heat at vines), who is present in Haut-Medoc and Graves.
Francois Mitjavile waits until very late with harvest – the grapes must be perfectly ripe, resulting in raisin-like lusciousness (Tertre Roteboeuf's trademark). He risks thereby, that his grapes will be destroyed, if the bad weather comes. Until now, the Gods of weather have been quite nice to him – several of Francois Mitjavile's vintages could easily have been labeled "vendange tardive".
This very late harvest combined with long alcoholic fermentation and extraction at 35°C, should result in powerful, sappy and well-structured wine with much fruit-sweetness and meatiness, where fruit and tannin make an extremely harmonious "mariage". Fermentation at 35°C is bounded with a great risk of whole thing turning to acetic acid, but Francois Mitjavile says, that "his" yeast cells easily can cope with so high fermentation temperature. Another thing, which is also characteristic for his wine-making, is the low yield per ha – max. 36 hl.
He will very much have personality and character of soil-conditions in his wine, even if this costs him maybe some complexity, but don't want to keep same style every vintage at any price. "Let us see, what soil and weather have cooked together this year, and get the best possible out of it. The miracle comes first of all from Mother Nature", he says.
In mid 90's, he was presented for a following statement from a taster: "Monsieur Mitjavile, in 1988 you made an elegant wine and in 1989 an opulent wine". The answer came immediately, "I am not responsible!".
Francois Mitjavile stands rock solid by his views. An oenologist's advice to filter the super-concentrated 1989, because it would leave a lot of deposit (so what?), was turned down immediately.
What's really the secret behind Tertre Roteboeuf's and Roc de Cambes' success? All the work Francois Mitjavile does, is extremely well thought out, it is his love to wine and intuition who drives him. In addition to it, he has a lot of courage and self-belief. Francois Mitjavile takes often risks, which other winemakers in Bordeaux do not dare. At the same time, he is incredibly self-confident and focused. This makes him a really complex winemaker, whose skills are close to genius-like. Francois Mitjavile does actually walk in the vineyard during the night, with his hands on his back and talking lovingly to the vines.
It is very obvious, that Tertre Roteboeuf and Roc de Cambes have Francois Mitjavile's personal "signature", because the style of both wines is different, compared to many wines in Bordeaux. This different style (raisin-like lusciousness and lots of perfectly ripe fruit) acts like ultra strong magnet on many wine-lovers, resulting in enormous demand.
Since 1994 vintage, he removed word "Château" from the label at both wines. He thought maybe, that this famous word sounded too pretentiously and did not fit in his way of working.
Today, he is acknowledged and respected by the majority of château-owners in Bordeaux (the big "guns" included), but this was absolutely not the case in the end of 80's. At that time, he was considered as an odd person with strange ideas. More winemakers of his kind and Bordeaux has absolutely nothing to fear.
I've visited Tertre Roteboeuf in 1987, 1988, 1990, 1993 and then every year since 1995. Every visit has been not only a great experience, but also a learning one. Not only because of his magnifique wines, but also by the fact that Francois Mitjavile is very cultivated person and knows immensely much about other things than wine, like for example culture and politics.