Gérard Perse has been splitting opinion in St-Emilion with his headline-making, high-scoring wines. ALAN SPENCER meets the man behind Château Pavie.

Gérard Perse has been splitting opinion in St-Emilion with his headline-making, high-scoring wines. ALAN SPENCER meets the man behind Château Pavie.

Born: 1949 Family: married (Chantal) 1971,one daughter (26) who is a legal advisor for Galeries Lafayette in Paris. Education: left school at 15 with his school-leaving certificate. Career: bought fruit & vegetable shop at 20, bought supermarket at 25, sold all supermarkets 1998. Properties: n Château Pavie, premier grand cru classé bought 1998 n Château Pavie-Decesse, grand cru classé bought 1997 n Château La Clusière, grand cru classé bought 1998 n Château Monbousquet, grand cru classé bought 1993 n Château Bellevue-Mondotte, grand cru bought 2001 n Clos Les Lunelles, Côtes de Castillon bought 2001 n Clos l’Eglise + Château Sainte-Colombe, Côtes de Castillon bought 2000 n Château Petit Village, Pomerol – purchase pending (awaiting results of the en primeur campaign 2003). Hotel-Restaurant: Hostellerie de Plaisance (St-Emilion), bought 2000

Something is happening in St-Emilion. There have been rumours of top growths pandering to New World taste. Château Monbousquet, a modest grand cru, was rated by Parker in the high 90s. Its prices trebled. Conservative connoisseurs were complaining about what had been done to their elegant Pavie while it was receiving highly favourable reviews. At l’Hostellerie de Plaisance, the top hotel-restaurant in the town centre, extensive renovation work has been carried out,
propelling it into the top luxury class, winning the coveted ‘Relais et Châteaux’ status. In staid St-Emilion, where the rule is ‘any colour provided it’s red’, a white wine has been introduced, the first ever. Pavie, which had made 20,000 cases a year, is suddenly only producing 7,500. What is going on? Not what, but who. Gérard Perse.

To my surprise, there is no problem meeting him. Easy to approach, affable and unassuming, he has the common touch. But his capacity for work, rapidity of execution and startling success have not made him welcome among the St-Emilion elite. ‘When I do something, I do my utmost to make it a success,’ he says. ‘But here that seems to create animosity. I came here innocently enough with one aim in mind: to make the best wine possible,’ Perse says. ‘I wanted to get pleasure doing it and hopefully give pleasure to others. I never imagined that would create such resentment.’

But he has not been unduly affected by the reaction. ‘I’m a perfectionist – a man of passion,’ he explains. His unpretentious manner, working hands-on, side by side with his staff, may be part of his success story. Unlike most local connoisseurs, Perse had no chance to taste fine wines in his youth, and his first wine experience came at the age of 26 – it was the ‘coup de foudre’ as he put it.

‘I had a miserable childhood,’ he says. ‘My father was a house painter in a Paris suburb. With eight brothers and sisters, the nine of us double-bunked in the only bedroom while my parents slept on a convertible in the living room.’ The flat did not even have running water. ‘What drove me was the need to rise out of our
impoverished circumstances. Also, perhaps subconsciously, I wanted to prove to my wife that I was capable of succeeding.’

Having bought a small supermarket, they worked from 6am until 10pm without a holiday for five years. Over the years, the Perses acquired six super- and hypermarkets in the Paris suburbs and, on building them up and selling them, thought of retiring to a small wine estate, preferably in St-Emilion. The chance came sooner than expected.

They had become great wine lovers, and made their first trip to St-Emilion in 1990. They fell in love with the town, the region and its wines. In 1993, when they heard the Querre family was looking for someone to take over Château Monbousquet, they had the ‘coup de foudre’ and took a lightning decision. The deal was clinched in just two weeks. Perse bought all 33 hectares for FF45 million (t6,860,000) without stock and immediately spent a further FF8.5 million (t1,300,0000) refurbishing the vat house and ageing cellars.

Buying into St-emilion

‘From the outset,’ he explains, ‘my only aim was to make top-quality wines.’ Following this strategy, he created a second wine for the 1993 vintage. Buying Pavie-Decesse, then first growth Pavie, was a more deliberate decision. The fast-moving supermarket trade taught him to act quickly and decisively. Missing vines were replanted, old stakes and wires replaced.

Perse was also unhappy with the underground cellars, the famous monolithic galleries hewn from limestone rock. Water was dripping on the barrels, giving the wine a musty taste, he says. So a brand-new, cathedral-like barrel store was built onto the winery. Cutting-edge technology was introduced. Yet he still wonders how it all happened.

‘I never imagined I could be the owner of a top first growth,’ Perse sighs. ‘I thought that was reserved for great families…’

His decision, on arriving in St-Emilion, to ensure the best winemaking advice by contacting consultant Michel Rolland, was not one that ingratiated him to the locals. Rolland, long-standing friend and advisor to Robert Parker, is accused by the conservative establishment of pandering to New World taste.

‘Tasting,’ declares a respected oenologist, ‘is the biggest confidence trick in the world.’ After tasting eight or 10 wines, palate fatigue sets in, he argues. If you try to taste more – 30, 50 or 80 wines at a go – the only wines that stand out are the overconcentrated, tannic or heavily oaked, ‘blockbusters’. It is a subtle way, he explains, to manipulate consumer taste.

Such criticism touches Perse on a sore spot. ‘My wines are definitely not over-concentrated.’ he bursts out. ‘No more than Latour or Lafite in a top vintage. What more can I say? Those who criticise have probably never tasted them.’ And tasting barrel samples from lots of the superb 2002 (Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon) I have to agree.

Undoubtedly, over the years and for better or worse, taste changes. Allan Sichel, shipper and château owner, believes fundamental and necessary changes are taking place in Bordeaux. ‘Wherever Michel Rolland has been called in,’ Sichel declares, ‘there has always been a massive improvement in the wines.’ However, he does not necessarily agree with the new style where over-extraction may rub out some of the terroir aspects, leading to wines which are too thick. ‘Personally I find that quite sickening,’ he says.

Perse is convinced he has achieved a happy medium. ‘Pavie is Pavie,’ he says. ‘It isn’t a table wine. It’s a premier grand cru classé and as such must be made to last. If it was too weak it wouldn’t stay the course.’ He believes it is neither over-, nor under-concentrated.

Inevitably, having made his fortune in the retail trade, Perse is criticised for being mercantile, an accusation he refutes. ‘Money,’ he says, ‘has never been my engine. You should never be obsessed by profit because when you start counting, you tend to go backwards.’

Perse believes the quality of the wine in the glass will override whatever the world’s great tasters may say. Pavie 1998 is now on the market and he is confident consumers and connoisseurs alike will appreciate it for what it really is – a top-quality St-Emilion first growth.

Alan Spencer is based in Bordeaux.

Written by Alan Spencer