Alain Brumont - Madiran’s fighting bull.
Should you wish to please Alain Brumont – and many people keen on acquiring a few bottles of his Montus Cuvée Prestige, known as ‘the Pétrus of the southwest’, do – you give him a model of a fighting bull to add to his collection. Born in 1946, Brumont is a force of nature. After attending agricultural school, he worked alongside his father at the family estate which produced dense-coloured, sturdy wines that were sold in bulk as vins médicins to bolster up the less robust wines of Bordeaux. Refusing to accept his father’s lack of ambition for the potential quality he recognised in the local Tannat grape, he left in 1980 to set up on his own, purchasing Château Montus on the other side of the Madiran appellation. Within five years, he had made his mark with the 100% Tannat, 100% new oak Montus Cuvée Spéciale. Despite the presence of honourable estates in the region (Château Peyros, Château d’Aydie and Domaine Capmartin, all three of which I sold in my Paris shop in the late 1970s) there is no doubt that there are two stages in Madiran’s history: before Brumont and after Brumont.
The effect of Brumont’s wine – the result of drastically reducing yields while at the same time increasing the density of planting, pre-fermentation maceration and lengthy ageing in new oak – was immediate. It was described as ‘Guigalesque’, elected ‘wine of the decade’ by French restaurant guide Gault-Millau, and Alain Brumont was touted as ‘France’s Angelo Gaja’ or ‘the Garibaldi of the southwest’. Yet when his 1985 was at first refused its AC ‘label’ by local authorities, Brumont exercised his right to have it presented to a higher authority in Bordeaux, whence it returned with appellation status and the note ‘the best Madiran we have ever tasted’. From many, many accolades since – the Brumont press book is a weighty tome – one often cited is the three stars awarded by Clive Coates MW in his book, Wines and Domaines of France, from which Latour and Mouton-Rothschild are notably absent.
From barely 100ha (hectares) in the mid-1970s, Madiran now covers 1,400ha, of which Brumont owns 160 and has a further 60 under contract. From the start, he targeted the hillsides and contentedly proclaims, ‘everything that is high up and good now belongs to me’. There are three types of soil: chalky clay, red clay and galets, the same smooth stones that are found in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, except that Madiran’s galets are larger and redder than in the southern Rhône, and date back 45 million years.
Admitting that Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot are important in the planting mix, Brumont’s passion is for Tannat, a truly noble grape if treated correctly. High-density planting of 7,000 vines per hectare enables just four to five bunches per vine to achieve perfect ripeness, helped by the rows being aligned at 3pm so that they receive both morning and evening sun, avoiding the glare around midday. Leaf management and green harvests are de rigueur, but Brumont goes further in demanding that each bunch of grapes for his top-level wines is sculpted by having its ‘shoulders’ removed to achieve the perfect size and weight.
The cellars at Château Montus are jaw-dropping. Coopers, stonemasons and layers of marble are seldom out of work chez Brumont, and it is said that the way to find the winery is to look for the tallest building crane in the vicinity. Key to the velvety texture of the top cuvées is the filling of the vats by gravity, a unique system of pigeage that runs on rails above each vat, malolactic fermentation in barrel and, of course, 100% new oak.
Almost as impressive is the château itself, which was remodelled from a pleasant 18th-century manor house into a colonnaded five-star hotel, opened by Brumont in 2003 with a leading chef hired to rival the reputation of his nearby friend, Michel Guérard at Les Prés d’Eugénie. But this venture, a rare setback for Madiran’s fighting bull, closed after one year. Combined with his divorce at the same time, the solution lay in accepting the Crédit Agricole (by far the largest vineyard owner in France) as a minority partner with a seat on the board.
At 60 years old, Alain Brumont is just reaching his cruising speed. The hotel has re-opened as a venue for conferences and weddings; and to complement his estate-grown Madirans (and fabulous dry and sweet Pacherenc du Vic Bihl whites) the recent creations are Torus, a more simple Madiran made at a local cave cooperative – which Brumont of course took over and now runs independently – and vins de pays from 200 contracted hectares in the Côtes de Gascogne.
I tasted his 2006 wines from barrel before going to Bordeaux. My money is on the Madirans.
What Steven’s been drinking this month
With all the family down for the May bank holiday, a magnum of Champagne was required, and the weather imposed a Mediterranean theme for the reds. Deutz Blanc de Blancs 1996 was elegantly floral and vanished without trace; the smooth and garriguey Bandol Cuvée Speciale 1999 Domaine Tempier, my favourite Provence red, matched our own lamb to perfection and Pesquera Reserve 1997 Ribera del Duero followed magnificently with the cheese.