The awarded novellist and château owner tells FIONA SIMS about his burgeoning Bergerac estate and a growing taste for the bourgeois
William Boyd dangles a bottle of red under my nose. The novelist, author of Any Human Heart, Brazzaville Beach and The Blue Afternoon and his latest, Bamboo (a re-issue of all his nonfiction) is just back from three months at his house in Bergerac with a car boot full of vino. It should be just enough to keep him in stock until the next visit, he figures.
He buys wines from other regions every now and again, but Bergerac – and this wine in particular – holds special appeal. He made it, you see. Okay, so he didn’t actually get his hands dirty with this particular vintage. His winery has moved to another location down the road now that production has stepped up.
It used to be in his house (his barn to be exact) – a converted farmhouse surrounded by 28ha (hectares) of woodland and vineyards. Boyd spends a lot of time there – three months on this last visit to finish his new novel, though he prefers not to work there.
‘There are far too many distractions,’ he grins, eyes twinkling, skin tanned against his white shirt. He disappears into the kitchen to make some tea. I guess it’s too early in the day to try his wine, and an offer is not forthcoming.
‘We’re producing even more bottles this year,’ he calls out. ‘We’ is himself and winemaker Thierry Bernard, whose day job is making wine in St-Emilion. They replanted the vineyards in 1992; by 1996, they got their first wine.
Château Pecachard is named after the house and the label is designed by the same artist who produced Boyd’s book jackets. I clock at least three shelves of his novels in his book-lined sitting room, some published in different languages, alongside Nabokov, Updike, Joyce and Waugh.
‘It’s become something quite established,’ Boyd says of his château, ‘though I’ve kept quiet about it until now.’ They expect to produce nearly 15,000 bottles this year: a rosé made with Cabernet Sauvignon; a white blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon; and two Bordeaux-blend reds. ‘Not that I can profit from it – French law and all that,’ he says.
So was this always his dream, to have a vineyard, make wine? ‘I grew up in Africa so no, wine wasn’t part of my life growing up. Colonial society is very spirit-based – it’s gin and tonic on the terrace,’ he laughs.
He was born in Accra, Ghana, in 1952 and brought up there and in Nigeria. His award-winning first novel, A Good Man in Africa, was published in 1981 while he was a lecturer in English at St Hilda’s College, Oxford.
It was only when he moved to London in 1983 that he became interested in wine. ‘There was no road-to-Damascus moment. I went from drinking filth as a student to slightly more refined.
We had a cottage in Oxfordshire near a wonderful wine shop, Bennett’s Fine Wines in Chipping Camden. We worked our way through plenty of bottles from there,’ he giggles. He read up on wine, burying his nose in Hugh Johnson and David Peppercorn.
As his fame grew, so did his income, allowing a more serious spend on top bottles. ‘We both became exposed to restaurants with serious wine lists,’ he says. Boyd’s wife, Susan, is editor-at-large for US publication Harpers Bazaar, and they’ve spent a lot of time in New York.
‘She’s a fantastic cook. We’re conscious about what we eat – we don’t like elaborate restaurants, we’d rather eat bourgeois. So what does he like to drink? ‘I’ve always leaned more towards Bordeaux than Burgundy but that’s changing,’ he says.
‘But my taste has settled now. Much as I love expensive wines, in daily life it’s more mid-price that I enjoy. As my food tastes have become more bourgeois, so has my wine, and there’s only so much I’ll pay for. We make wine ready to drink now – I’ve stopped buying wines that are ready to drink in 10 years. I’ve developed a seize-the-day impulse.’
He hasn’t got much of a cellar in his London home, he admits. Just a few dozen bottles, mostly of his own wines. He has many more stashed in France, among them Gruaud-Larose, Domaine de Chevalier, Ducru-Beaucaillou and Lynch-Bages, and wines from local Bergerac producers such as Luc de Conti, Château de la Jaubertie and Domaine de l’Ancienne Cure.
‘I tend to drink really good wine on its own; I don’t want the taste of the food to get in the way,’ he adds. And does he ever go on recommendations from the critics? ‘I try and form my own judgement, just as do I with the theatre or restaurants. You are constantly being judged as a writer so I know how fickle it is. I certainly don’t have that lemming-like push to follow critics.’
Does he visit other vineyards? ‘I’ve visited a lot of producers in the area and I think I’ve found the best. But we do drink a lot of our own wines, too, as they are tailored to our taste,’ Boyd explains.
And yes, he visits plenty of wine regions around the world while on book tours – he loves South Africa, for example, and after a recent trip to Germany ‘got very into Riesling’. I’d re-read a short story of Boyd’s called Lunch on the way to meet him. ‘House Champagne surprisingly good – small bubbles, buttery, cidery,’ he writes. ‘I’m particularly pleased with that one,’ he tells me.
Written by Fiona Sims