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The Poet of Roast Beef Hill

March 11, 1998|STUART PIGOTT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Pigott is a British journalist and wine writer

On a late February afternoon, I sit opposite winemaker Francois Mitjavile in the sitting room of his Tertre Roteboeuf estate in St. Emilion, in Bordeaux.

"I'm not a very refined person," he says laconically. "Actually, I eat rather like a pig. However, people tell me that I make very civilized wines. Perhaps it will rub off on me."

Little more than a decade ago, only a few wine world insiders had heard of Tertre Roteboeuf, but it has rapidly become one of the most sought-after red Bordeaux. Mitjavile hardly looks the part of a successful winegrower, though. With his locks of gently graying hair, corduroy trousers and tweed waistcoat, he appears more like a poet or a philosopher than a vintner.

Indeed, poetry and philosophy seem the right words to describe the way he talks about wine. He hardly mentions the nuts and bolts of winemaking. Instead, it is the "soul" of the wine that interests him.

"The winegrower is a civilized peasant," he says. "Civilized because he adapts the cultivation of the vine to the circumstances of his vineyard and to those of each growing season. Wine is a highly elaborated agricultural product with deep roots in our civilization."

Once he has started on a particular train of thought, Mitjavile tumbles from one idea to the next, always searching for new connections and for metaphors to express them.

"Great wine is an aromatic bomb of music which plays new melodies each time it is experienced," he declares matter-of-factly, as if this highly unconventional idea were obvious.

There could not be a better way to describe the wines Mitjavile has been making at Tertre Roteboeuf since 1978. When young, his wines are perfumed with a panoramic spectrum of fruit, spice, herb and mineral aromas quite unlike the forceful black currant and vanilla bouquet typical of young Bordeaux reds.

The 1997 Tertre Roteboeuf tasted from barrel had notes of sour cherry, fig, lemon peel, licorice, cocoa powder and wet earth. The 1996, also in the barrel but shortly to be bottled, smelled of black plum, hazelnut, sage and something reminiscent of a stonemason's yard. With each swirl of the glass, new aromas emerged. Unlike the wines of many renowned Bordeaux chateaux, which vary in body from vintage to vintage but tend to show the same character every year, each vintage of Tertre Roteboeuf is unique.

"Quality in wine should be defined through authenticity," says Mitjavile, "just as it is among people through sincerity. I want to capture the originality of each vintage.

"What do you think of these wines, though?" he asks probingly.

The powerful, emphatic '96 leaves me searching for words. Then I remember a favorite expression of the Irish painter Francis Bacon: "the violence of the rose."

This description is sincere but not as clever as it might seem. In the pile of books on which my glasses of wine are balanced, I had noticed several about Bacon's work. There is no tasting room at Tertre Roteboeuf, so visitors either have to stand in the cellar or taste in the library-sitting room of the house. On another table lie CDs, including Radu Lupu's interpretation of Schubert's piano sonatas and the Cranberries' first album next to a well-thumbed copy of Descartes' "Discourse on Method." Mitjavile and his wife, Emilie, have interests ranging far beyond those typical of Bordeaux winegrowers.

Their house is not large, but the elegance of the limestone facade certainly seems worthy of the designation "chateau." However--unusual for Bordeaux--this word does not appear on the label.

"The house was built around 1730 as a hunting lodge, so originally nobody slept here," Emilie Mitjavile explains.

Instead, it is the name of the 14-acre vineyard--Tertre Roteboeuf--she inherited from her father in 1961 that is on the label. There is good reason for this, because the Tertre Roteboeuf vineyards are quite exceptional for the region. Most Bordeaux vineyards, even those of top chateaux, are flat or very gently inclined. At Tertre Roteboeuf, they fall away steeply in front of the house and enjoy almost due south exposure.

The name Tertre, or "hilltop," refers to the gently sloping land behind the house. The name Roteboeuf, or "roast beef," comes from the fact that the slope beneath it used to be plowed by oxen that turned red with exertion in this heat trap.

Because Emilie was still a child when she inherited the estate, from 1961 until 1977 the vineyards were leased to her cousins, who blended the wine in with that from their own vineyards. It was after the house was rented by the Mitjavile trucking company that she met Francois--whose family had been involved in the wine trade in Spain and who had worked at nearby Chateau Figeac--and they had the idea of bringing Tertre Roteboeuf back to life.

When Francois shows me the vineyards late in the afternoon, dusk is falling fast, and it is not easy to see much except that the vines have the thick trunks that is a sure indicator of considerable age.

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