The Decanter Interview: Alain Brumont
- Friday 15 April 2011
It’s not easy being Alain Brumont. Getting by on five hours sleep a night, for one thing – but that’s all this restless, hyperactive obsessive claims he needs.
Restless in the small hours a few years ago, he ventured out to chase a herd of marauding deer out of his young vines and across the fields alone in his 4x4, finding himself soon afterwards in the bottom of a ditch with eight broken ribs. ‘If I hadn’t had my mobile phone…’
Frosty relations with his own no-less-forceful father, Alban Brumont, can’t have been comfortable; nor can two broken marriages. ‘I’m not proud of having been married three times,’ he says. ‘I would prefer to have married just once.’ I recall talking to his second wife, Catherine, who told me Alain lived on ‘Planet Wine, not Planet Earth’. It was, she said, sometimes ‘difficult for terrestrial relationships’.
He admits he is ‘excessive in everything – every time I do something, I have to do it to the limit’. (He was a very successful downhill skier in his 20s – but made himself stop because he realised he was beginning to lose touch with the limits.)
He’s flirted with financial catastrophe; he’s had a long series of battles with France’s wine authorities; the family house at Bouscassé burned down in 1987; he’s seen an employee killed and another die of a heart attack.
But despite it all, he’s still enthusiastic, energetic, planning for the future – and producing, from 300 hectares of vineyards, what are, for me, France’s most undervalued fine wines.
Few wine producers anywhere in the world dominate their region like Brumont does Madiran. It’s an astonishing story for a man whose father insisted he terminate his education at 16 to replace an injured farm employee, and whose only formal wine training was a three-week tasting course he took in his 30s.
He was a farm worker for the first 14 years of his working life, before splitting with his father after his first marriage, in 1980. ‘I wanted to make up the time I’d lost. I had begun a lot of reading about wine; I wanted to do it well.’
He bought his own property, Château Montus, against all the odds. ‘Because of the generational conflict, I didn’t have a centime. And my father was on the administrative board of the local Crédit Agricole, so there was no chance of them lending me money.’
Based on the edge of three large agricultural regions, Brumont decided to simply approach another branch of the bank. My security wasn’t good enough, but the committee knew what a hard worker I was.
I was the first one on the tractor, and the last one off. They lent me the money – but what really impressed me was that they lent me their trust.’His first wine, Château Montus 1982, already eclipsed many of its peers in regional tastings, and the debut of the Cuvée Prestige in 1985 ‘went round the world winning accolades and unseating 300 years of dominance by Bordeaux and Burgundy’.
It was, though, an illegal wine. ‘The vines were only two years old; I took just three bunches from each. I’ve always begun in illegality, in fact. But I had a strong desire to prove myself, to affirm myself. I did it by pushing myself to extremes, to the edge of madness sometimes.’
Once Brumont was launched, there was no stopping him. He developed what he calls a ‘bulimia for terroir’. ‘I dreamed of terroirs every night. It got to a totally unreasonable level. I got to know every square metre of the region. They used to call me Mr Digger, because I’d be out there in February when you could get into the clay, sometimes at night, digging holes everywhere. I went terroir-mad, stone-mad.’
Madiran is far from mono-cultural – much of the region is lucratively planted for seed maize. Brumont was able to gobble up the best (stoniest, most steeply sloping) vineyard land by vomiting up the richer- soiled cereal plots in exchange.
Even this involved a measure of illegality. ‘Because I had such success with wine from young vines, people said I was cheating. They said it wasn’t Madiran. I wasn’t on the same wavelength as other growers here, not even the good ones. “If you doubt it,” I said, “come and work alongside me”.’ No one wanted to. ‘But when I tried to buy land next to them, they would get SAFER [the government body that supervises and can pre-empt agricultural transactions] on to me.
I couldn’t swallow that. So I created front companies with employees who used their own names, and after that they didn’t bother us. I bought up a lot of land like that.’
He claims, nonetheless, that he is on good terms with his regional peers today. ‘There’s no other winegrower in the south west who is invited to fêtes, weddings and other parties as often as I am.’Does all of this amount to megalomania?
After all, Madiran is surely more important than Brumont. To test the theory, Brumont undertook a survey around the world among writers, sommeliers and importers, tasting their recognition of four words: Madiran, Brumont, Montus, Bouscassé. Brumont registered 80% recognition, Montus 60%, Bouscassé 25% and Madiran a lowly 10%. Those questioned were also asked to name another appellation in the south west. Only 3% could do that.
‘The Brumont phenomenon is extremely powerful, to the extent that we are trying to demolish that a bit, and put Montus and Bouscassé more into the spotlight,’ he says. Madiran, chez Brumont, looks after itself.
The region has other fine growers – the Laplace family at Aydie, Didier Barré at Domaine Berthoumieu, Alain Bortolussi at Château Viella or Guy Capmartin, to name just four – but the lighthouse of the appellation casts a long shadow.
The cult of Brumont might be risible or pitiful were it not for one fact: these wines are supremely good. This emperor is fully clothed. There is no resting on achievement at Brumont, and his key team members (Fabrice Dubosc at Brumont’s right hand, Simon Forgue at Montus and Alain Dutilh at Bouscassé) are all talented and ferociously hard-working.
Every year they have a competition to find the longest list of experiments to try for the following year. Brumont claims he always wins. ‘I’ve got projects up to 2020. That’s why I don’t much like talking about the past. The future is always more interesting.’
It’s hard to argue that the innovations over which Brumont battled the authorities haven’t been beneficial for the region as a whole. He fought for the right to sell 100% Tannat Madiran at a time when authorities were insisting on large admixtures of Bordeaux varieties. He fought for the right for sweet, late-harvest Pacherenc to be made with up to 20% potential alcohol ‘when the regulations said you were allowed just 15% total alcohol’.
Brumont has pioneered single-vineyard Madiran with the hugely successful La Tyre. He’s conclusively shown the value of low yields in this rich-soiled area ‘where I’ve never seen a single case of water stress’.
He’s never acidified a wine; he’s never chaptalised one. He uses the Vins de Pays framework for wines from Madiran if he needs to – as with his dense yet soft-textured, clay-grown Tannat-Merlot cuvée Les Menhirs.
He even works with a kind of personal co-op of his own, the 20-member Cave Torus, to make the inexpensive Torus wines (a sound introduction to Madiran and Pacherenc) and he rents a swathe of Gascogne vineyards to make cunning two-variety blends – some of the best sub-E7 value wines in France.
At the top level, too, his wines always figure among the best of the appellation: dense, ageworthy, structured and authoritative, with the craggy Montus (grown on stony soils at Castelnau-Rivière-Basse in the Haute-Pyrénées département – his ‘Left Bank’ wine) clearly differentiated from the softer, more sensual Bouscassé (limey clay soil at Maumusson-Laguian in the Gers département – his ‘Right Bank’ wine).
He has occasionally been criticised for copious use of new oak, but he’s unrepentant. ‘I use as many new barrels as ever, but I have an absolute horror of finding a single trace of wood in wine. The fact is – and I discovered this as long ago as the 1985 Prestige – Tannat eats wood. You don’t notice it. A part of La Tyre even spends time in [relatively small] 110-litre barrels, but people often say it’s the least oaky of the four top wines.’ For his dry Pacherencs, by contrast, he uses 600-litre barrels from Stockinger in Austria.
You might imagine, having read all this, that Alain Brumont is physically forceful, shouting in your ear and telling you what to think. In fact, he is almost softly spoken and undemonstrative, though the tide of his speech rarely ebbs.
For a 64-year-old who sleeps five hours a night, he looks in good shape; he still climbs stairs two at a time; rides his bike; skies. The work of Professor Roger Corder, moreover (The Wine Diet, Sphere 2006), suggests that Madiran may well be the most healthful red wine of all, thanks to its elevated procyanidin levels.
Men from Gers have an average life expectancy of 79 years. The improbable Brumont narrative is far from over.