Taking the right tack
The descendant of a family that has been growing wines near Orange for 200 years, Michel Bernard’s parents dreamt of an easier life for him, so they encouraged him to study law at university. But “it was about as useless to me as a screen door on a submarine”, explains Michel. The sudden death of his father prompted him to leave university and take over the family estate. However, his studies also led him to “set up as a businessman”. At that time, supermarkets were discovering more boutique-style wines. Michel brought together forty or so smaller growers and his shipping business became so successful that it ranked 1st or 2nd region wide. Ultimately though, he grew to dislike the constant downward spiral in multiple retail, realising that ever-cheaper prices inevitably meant compromising on quality. So he decided to change tack and bought Château Beauchêne.
Making the kind of wine where people empty the bottle
The estate currently boasts 70 hectares of vineyards, split into two parts a few kilometres from each other. All the wines are made at the chateau, a superb 18th-century manor house set on the site of a Roman villa with amphorae. It is also home to a venerable plane tree 6.4 metres in circumference, probably one of the first to be brought over from America 300 or 350 years ago, along with a smattering of oak trees. His wife, Dominique Verniaud, and their daughters are also part of the venture but Michel is the one who keeps a close eye on the vineyards and wines. He decides how to style his Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Côtes du Rhône in all three colours. He likes fruity wines and elegant tannins which must allow enjoyment after a year or two whilst at the same time ensuring the wines will keep for 10 years. Above all, he makes the kind of wines where people empty the bottle! A strategy that has paid off as 95% of his wines are now exported to countries such as the USA, China, Holland and Germany.
Prospects for the future
At the age of 68, this lover of the good things in life whose appearance is akin to that of a Roman senator, ponders over the future. “Pensate in fine” is the motto on the coat of arms featured on his bottles. His estate is likely to be passed on to one of his daughters. In the vineyard, global warming is countered by replacing some of the Grenache vines with Mourvèdre whose alcohol content is more restrained. “At least with this varietal, cask ageing is not for make-believe”. Within the industry, Michel has always held a number of tenures – at the regional wine marketing board, Vin & Société, the Wine University and as head of wine tourism for the foreign office for instance – in addition to being a wine grower. Tough competition from the likes of Chile and Argentina, who enjoy a free trade agreement with Asia, leaves only one option for French wines: quality. Others can wage the price war.
Why not give some thought to the wisdom of this skilful wine grower over a bottle of Château Beauchêne!
Like to know more about Michel Bernard? Visit Les Grappes!