SimpleWineNews: Cancas, Oil, Grand Cru
31 Aug 17
Russian art has found its way into the most prestigious wine collections in the world. Andrey Filatov, entrepreneur, philanthropist, founder of the Art Russe Foundation, acquired and completely rebuilt a chateau in Saint-Emilion. Traditional wine labels have been replaced with reproductions of paintings of Roerich, Repin, Vrubel, Vasnetsov and others. SWN finds out more about this spectacular turn of events in the winemaking world.
We are seated in a spacious, bright living room with a high ceiling. The Château Director Laurent Prosperi is trying to fix floor lamps newly delivered from Italy. The walls have been polished to reveal limestone masonry of the early 19th century. On each side of the fireplace are shelves filled with books on wine and art. A chessboard with red and yellow figures rests on the table. The building faces the road linking Pomerol and Saint-Emilion. Those taking the road unavoidably see the huge scarlet letters ART RUSSE, planted on the lawn. An attentive eye will also notice a group of birch trees at the entrance to the château, as well as a laconic cylinder in the courtyard – an apparent hybrid between a giant hockey puck and a miniature missile silo. It’s the wine cellar or its upper level, to be exact. A helicopter can safely land atop. Indeed, a helipad is installed on the roof, from which two Gothic bell towers are clearly visible – those of Pomerol and Saint-Emilion. The cellar sits on the direct invisible line between the two. On one side, a glass pavilion boasting a bottling line that resembles an object of contemporary art flanks the cellar. On the other side is a guesthouse concealed by mirrored panels. Minimalism and an exciting game of reflections. The author of the project is Pritzker Prize winner Jean Nouvel, known primarily for the building of the Louvre branch in Abu Dhabi, and here in Bordeaux for the red terrace building of Château La Dominique.
I kneel down beside a crate and scrutinize the labels with curiosity. The reaction is spontaneous. It is difficult to resist at the sight of unusually shaped bottles featuring familiar childhood images. Here is Malyavin's bold stroke, a vivid riot of red; there is the stern, mystical Roerich and the demonically dynamic Vrubel. The Three Heroes, Sadko, Ivan Tsarevich on a magic carpet, Vladimir Lenin proclaiming Soviet power, and the Swan Princess. The whole pantheon. These are the labels for the first release of the upgraded Château La Grâce Dieu des Prieurs, included in the appellation Saint-Emilion Grand Cru. 2014 Vintage. The new owner has completely transformed the château in three years and launched a joint project with Art Russe, which owns the largest private collection of Russian art of the late 19th and 20th centuries. The labels feature reproductions of paintings from the Art Russe collection only. Twelve titans of Russian and Soviet art will represent each vintage.
- Laurent, do you play chess?, I ask the Château Director Laurent Prosperi.
- Not with Russians. And I wouldn't advise you to play with Monsieur Filatov in particular. He crushes me on his third move.
- I most certainly won't. I know he is the coach of the Russian national chess team and, in a broader sense, the country's main chessman who has built the Moscow Chess Museum. I simply saw the chessboard and was wondering if you practiced.
- Oh, no, this is a top from a six-bottle gift box, Monsieur Filatov's idea.
- And how did Mr. Filatov come up with the idea to buy a château in Saint-Emilion and transform it into an object of contemporary art?
- He truly loves France. As you know, he is Chevalier of the Order of the Legion of Honor. He did a lot to develop trade relations between Russia and France. He likes to come here, loves French cuisine and French wines. For him, our project is a way to combine two passions: wine and art.
The director of a Bordeaux chateau is the person in charge of literally everything: the health of each vine and the cleanliness of each vat; the style and quality of the wine; the design of labels and the new cellar; the faultlessness of the current account and such an illusory notion as the château reputation. Château Director is not necessarily an oenologist by training and is not always a winemaker. He, as it were, is a château-maker. For instance, Christian Seely, Director of Château Pichon Baron and other Axa Millesime estates, is a graduate of INSEAD. Prior to his career in the wine sector, he worked both at L'Oreal and Guinness Mahon. Laurent Prosperi does not hold a diploma of oenologist either. He is a chef, restaurateur, hotelier and an experienced teacher of culinary art.
«I can't say I took a road well travelled. I obtained a master's degree in Culinary Art Management at the Faculté Nice Sophia Antipolis in Nice. I worked as a cook for Eduard Balladur, Prime Minister of France (under François Mitterrand, from 1993 to 1995), and then taught for seventeen years at my alma mater and other cook schools. In 2007, I met Andrey Filatov. First he offered me the position of manager of his boutique hotel in Courchevel. In just a few years, we raised the hotel's rank from three stars to five. I served as both hotelier and chef. And then he asked me to run a winemaking project in Saint-Emilion.
In essence, building a five-star hotel and a five-star château is one and the same thing. The main task is to find best-in-class professionals and organize their collaboration in such a way that the output is impeccable service in one case and outstanding wine in the other.
We always liked the Saint-Emilion style personified by Château Tertre-Rôteboeuf. For this reason we invited Louis Mitjavile to be our consulting oenologist. The new cellar had to meet two basic requirements: functionality and modern design. This, in turn, led us to inviting Jean Nouvel, a leading French architect.
My grandfather is Italian, originally from a small town near Pisa. He ran a shirt tailoring shop. He immigrated to France on the eve of WW2. Grandfather wanted us to fully integrate into the new culture, so he never spoke Italian to us. My father served as a teacher and head master at HORECA schools across France. Then he became president of AFLYHT, an association gathering French hotel, catering and tourism high schools. I followed in his footsteps. I was born in Lyon, grew up in Paris, studied in Bordeaux, then in Nice. I am 100% French.
How will we develop the project further? No dream is off the table: a boutique hotel, a Michelin restaurant, classical music festivals in the cellar, contemporary art installations and so on. At the moment, however, my main concern is to make an outstanding wine and get recognition from the world's best sommeliers.»
Striving for Uniqueness
Mitjavile is a household name in Saint-Emilion. François Mitjavile, the owner of Château Tertre, the name of which he extended to include Rôteboeuf («buffalo’s roar»), was one of the first in Bordeaux to use the technique of aging in new casks, bringing their share to 100% by the mid-80s. He replaced the prevalent Guyot vine training system with Cordon, and started to delay harvesting as long as possible, picking all 6 hectares of grapes in one day, once the berries have reached top maturity. The Mitjaviles' (father and son, Francois and Louis) philosophy boils down to top maturity, juiciness, fleshiness and velvetiness. They produce 100% first wine only. They never filed for classification, all the while routinely maintaining their prices above those of Premier Grand Cru Classé B winemakers for more than twenty years. The Mitjaviles do not work with the Place de Bordeaux, whereas their neighbors sell up to 90% of their harvest en primeur via negociants. The Mitjaviles chose to sell Tertre-Rôteboeuf directly to importers and distributors.
In addition to the family domain in Saint-Emilion, Louis Mitjavile consults a dozen other wine estates in France, including Corsica and Languedoc, but mostly on the right bank of Bordeaux. He is in demand as a carrier of a unique, and most importantly, productive approach. Mitjavile has been consulting La Grâce Dieu des Prieurs since the start of the renovation project. He began by pruning vines for the 2014 vintage, subsequently submitting to the architect Jean Nouvel technical parameters relating to the numbers of vats and casks he would require in the new winery, and the levels they should be placed on. Mitjavile has been consistently reforming the vineyard. He oversees vinification and aging, blending and bottling. At the château, he is King and God with a full range of powers in everything that concerns quality improvement.
«I consulted everywhere, from California to Spain and Argentina. I satisfied my curiosity and desire for knowledge of the world, and completed all projects, except those in France.
The consulting oenologist deals with everything: the vine, the cellar and the market. He is responsible not only for the contents of the bottle. Making an outstanding wine is not the most difficult part. Making the world recognize it as such is the real challenge.
Advice from the consulting oenologist translates easily into the language of numbers. Having advised to test the soil, transplant the vines, buy the latest equipment, the consultant cannot simply shrug off the questions relating to pricing and market positioning. If the owner of a château of the appellation Saint-Emilion-Montagne came to me, I would immediately say that it is impossible to create a premium brand there. Not because you can't make a high-quality wine. It's just that the market is extremely conservative in its perception of appellations. With Saint-Emilion Grand Cru there is a lot of flexibility. Tertre-Rôteboeuf is also a Saint-Emilion Grand Cru. From the very beginning it was clear that the owner was ready for massive investments, and the appellation allows to transform them into a real asset.»
Mitjavile's Trademark Style
Delayed harvesting; top maturity of berries
Tannin maturity increases the feeling of freshness, improves the overall balance and prevents acidity reduction
Gravity flow; protection from oxygen
Extraction: slow, long, and soft
Micro oxygenation to accelerate maturation and stabilization
One wine, wine cooper, one cask
Grace of God
La Grâce Dieu is a locality, a fairly large area situated between Saint-Emilion and Pomerol. According to legend, the place is named after the infirmary, which existed here before and attracted people seeking cure from all over France. The name La Grâce Dieu - "The Grace of God" – also appears in the names of three or four neighboring châteaux. All of them are included in the Saint-Emilion Grand Cru appellation. The château now called La Grâce Dieu des Prieurs has been known since the end of the 19th century. It later merged with Château Fortin, located a couple of kilometers away. Several plots with a total area of 9 hectares lie within the borders of the locality. The type of terroir is almost everywhere the same: sand and loam on clayey subsoil, sometimes with high limestone content. «The nearby Château Larmand has a very similar type of soil, explains Louis Mitjavile. It shone in the 1980s. Philippe Menère made amazing wines. The current owner is an insurance company, which is not to the château’s benefit. I knew there was potential. I recently opened a bottle of Larmande 1986, a wine in perfect condition, which develops very slowly and beautifully. Back then, Philippe told me that there was no need to emphasize power on this terroir, it was already there. What was needed was extremely soft extraction - cultivation of elegance.»
Cordon and Plow
Similarly to 90% of all wine estates in Saint-Emilion, La Grâce Dieu des Prieurs used the Guyot vine training system (short stems with thin second year's shoots). Mitjavile's first step consisted in introducing the Cordon system (stems with horizontal fruiting branches). He is a radical opponent of the «green harvest», i.e. cutting a part of clusters in mid-season, and believes that the harvest should be managed not «along the way» but «in advance», at the stage of winter pruning. The Guyot system delivers excessive yields, with clusters often of varying sizes, which leads to uneven maturation. The Cordon system produces fewer small clusters, enabling the vine to nourish them evenly throughout the season. Two to five years are required to switch a vineyard to the Cordon system.
Another innovation is the taller wine canopy. This increases photosynthesis and therefore the maturation rate. «They say the vine must suffer, explains Mitjavile. I do not agree. The vine should be healthy, in balance, it should have enough water, essential nutrients and sunlight to nourish the berries.» The space between rows is regularly plowed. Chemical treatment is optimized and reduced to the minimum. Mitjavile is not a fan of organic and biodynamic agriculture. «I have a friend in Paris who thinks that «organic» means nobody ever touches the grapes - what has grown, has grown. Unfortunately, that's what many people think, remaining blissfully unaware of the fact that copper, sulfur and biopesticides are often more harmful than their synthesized equivalents. Chemistry has made a leap, it is much more selective. Chemicals are now applied much less frequently, which means tractors compress the earth less frequently and consume less gasoline.»
Mitjavile has yet another reason to aim for small, equal-size clusters. He delays harvesting as long as possible, achieving full polyphenolic maturity, but when the moment is right, the grapes must be harvested lightning fast. Any further delay may quench the freshness of flavors. Mitjavile also has his own philosophy with regard to the balance of acidity and tannins: «If you harvest the grapes late, you lose acidity, which is normal. But there is nothing terrible in that. Paradoxically, you may have little acidity, but a lot of freshness. Because freshness does not come from acidity, but from a balanced structure and the quality of tannins. 1997 is a very late vintage, very mature, with exotic notes. At the same time, it is stunningly fresh. There is a view that high acidity determines a wine's potential. Nothing of the kind. High acidity wines are unpleasantly harsh in taste. Rosé wines are generally very acidic, and they have no potential at all. The combination of grace, fleshiness, sumptuousness, juiciness and freshness, that's what we are trying to achieve.»
The door of Jean Nouvel's cylinder is barely noticeable. Groping for the knob takes some time. Once inside, the visitor experiences a color shock, as if he was doused with a few buckets of paint: scarlet, orange, yellow, blue and green. One does not immediately realize that the radiant vats arranged in a circle reflect the portrait of Yuri Gagarin by Anatoly Gankevich. The reproduction print is stretched right there, and the smiling Gagarin, as if alive, seems to dance on the surface of the vats. A playful wink from Jean Nouvel.
On the outside, the vats are absolutely identical (otherwise it would be impossible to achieve the Gagarin effect). They are, however, totally different on the inside, customized for the vineyard and its technical requirements for wine transfer and blending. Three 127 hl vats are intended for fermentation of Merlot, and a 57 hl vat - for that of Cabernet Franc. The total output is usually about 300 hl of Merlot and about 30 hl of Cabernet Franc. In addition, there is a blending vat, two racking vats, and two smaller fining vats. It is obvious that the entire cellar is custom designed and built for the existing vineyard with no further expansion plans.
The lower level houses a «crypt» filled with casks. Wine is transferred from the vats into casks using the gravity flow method. About a hundred casks are in the central circle (2015 vintage); another hundred casks form the outer ring (2016 vintage). The space is equipped with an autonomous humidity and temperature monitoring system.
The entire process of receiving grapes is designed so as to ensure that whole berries fall into the vat, are pressed under their own weight or burst as a result of triggering intracellular fermentation. In order to minimize extraction, Mitjavile aims to preserve the skin intact as much as possible. After very soft pressing, the wine trickles down into the lower «crypt» for malolactic fermentation.
One Terroir, One Wine, One Cask
Even the most modestly sized Bordeaux wine estates usually work with casks from seven to eight coopers, and each delivers different brands with variations in terms of oak types and toasting methods. Mitjavile uses only one cask type in both his family château and at La Grâce Dieu des Prieurs: «I'm not sure that cask assembly methods used by different coopers make wine more attractive and sophisticated. There's vanilla and tar here, cardamom there - let's mix everything and it will turn out the depth. It's a delusion. I have one wine, I blend before aging, and I don't need to artificially increase complexity. There is one perfect cask to match a particular wine.»
The perfect cask is called Radoux Blend. It is a «wood blend», and the key in the construction of these casks is the selection of staves with the thinnest pores and low tannins. «People still use such terms as «deep toast», «medium toast», and «medium plus toast». It’s not steak roasting and the level of accuracy here is very high. If you ask me what type of toasting I want, I'll name Code 150, which includes a lot of parameters, such as duration, temperature, humidity and so on. Aging in Radoux Blend casks is slow and even, with a milder effect of aromatic components of oak.
White in the Pipeline
White wines are an established trend on the right bank. Even Cheval Blanc reallocated a significant portion of La Tour du Pin Figéac vineyards for a white grape variety and now makes its own white cuvée. The crispy Loire-style Sauvignon has recently been released to the market. Valandraud banks on the Sémillon variety and the oak barrel. At La Grâce Dieu des Prieurs we approached the question even more progressively. In 2016, 1 hectare of Chardonnay was planted on clayey-sandy soils, with grafting on existing Merlot vines. And although the first results will only be available with the 2019 vintage, the château is confident that Chardonnay from Saint-Emilion will become a sensation.
Sales launched in March 2017. The wine remained untouched in a glass for more than an hour during our conversation with Mitjavile, but did not particularly change: «It has a very big potential. If a wine is well balanced and properly stabilized by aging, it faces no threats.» Fresh oak contributes spices, vanilla, liquorice, cinnamon and nutmeg flavors, but is well integrated into the rich cherry-blackberry-blueberry cocktail. The notes of aromatic herbs complement the picture. The wine is juicy, expressive and dense, with vigorous acidity.
Is about to be bottled. «Explosive and unrestrained berry taste. Truly sumptuous and seductive.» The berry taste is so sweet and dense that the nose itches. The notes of dried fruit, along with the fig and dried peach flavors complement the berry basket. The wine is Kustodiev style: full-bodied, juicy, extremely round and soft.
In the middle of ageing term. The first vintage to come out of the new «Gagarin cellar». «A peculiar vintage: paradoxical, combining both power and incredible lightness. The most concentrated in recent years. The laboratory data show an increased concentration of tannins, which remain imperceptible during tasting.» The flavor is very intense: if it is berries, then they are covered with dewdrops. The finest dense tannins ensure fantastic flavor stability, and add freshness along with a final minty note.
Andrey Filatov: «Since the foundation of Art Russe, all our activities have been aimed at raising awareness of Russian art. It is a very personal project for me. It represents love of the lost Motherland. I was born and raised in the Soviet Union, a country that later ceased to exist, disintegrated, but left a colossal cultural and scientific heritage. I remember the cultural milieu in which I formed. All that is very close and dear to me, and I would like to acquaint with the history and culture of that country as many people as possible around the world.»
Andrey Filatov: Russian businessman, 109th (2017) on the Forbes list of Russia's wealthiest people, with an estimated wealth of US$0.95 billion. Key assets: Tuloma Investment Company, railway operator Globaltrans, Russia's largest port operator Global Ports, and a 7% share in Transoil. Member of the Economic Council of the Franco-Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. In 2012, initiated World Championship Match between Boris Gelfand and Viswanathan Anand in the Tretyakov Gallery, funding a prize fund of US$2.55 million. In 2014, opened the Moscow Chess Museum on Gogol Boulevard. In the same year became President of the Russian Chess Federation and Vice-President of FIDE. Since 2016, captain and senior coach of the Russian national chess team, which under his leadership took silver at the World Cup. Since 2012, collects works of Russian painters of the 19th-20th centuries.
Art Russe Foundation
• Founded by Andrey Filatov in 2012
• Initial mission: collect works of art created between 1917 and 1991 and taken out of the country. The area of interest of the Foundation later expanded to include the pre-Soviet period.
• Estimated value of Art Russe collection according to Bloomberg: US$ 500 million (2015).
• Collection currently includes more than 400 works.
• Recent acquisitions: Ilya Repin: Religious Procession in Kursk Province (1883), Village Dance (1891), Demonstration of 17 October 1905 (1906), Sadko in the Underwater Kingdom (1876); Valentin Serov: Portrait of Cousin Alexandra (1889), The Rape of Europa (1910); Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin: Our Lady (1912), Youth (1913); Nicholas Roerich: And We Continue Fishing (1922), And We Are Trying (1922), And We See (1922); Filipp Malyavin: Whirlwind (1906); Viktor Vasnetsov: Alyonushka (1881), The Legendary Heroes (1881-1898), Magic Carpet (1880); Mikhail Vrubel: The Swan Princess (1900); Zinaida Serebryakova: In the Ballet Toilet. Snowflakes (1923).
• Highlights: a collection of works by Nikolai Fechin and Viktor Popkov
• Permanent exhibition: Russian Art Gallery in the Beaulieu Museum Complex (UK)