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Decanter interview: Christian Moueix

The man whose name has been synonymous with Pétrus for more than 40 years has, in fact, not worked at the estate since 2011. But that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been busy. Andrew Jefford meets him to talk about his properties, his obsession with drainage, and handing over the reins

Christian Mouiex and his son Edouard

Moueix at a glance

Born 1946

Family Wife Cherise, and son Edouard (38), who has worked for JPM for 10 years, and Charlotte (36) a wildlife vet in South Africa.

How does he buy a vineyard? In winter, in the rain, to see what the drainage is like.

Interests Art, opera, architecture, literature, horse racing Other companies

Autres Rivages, developed by Edouard. It handles the classed growths of the Médoc, and imports Dominus

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Who knew? I didn’t. The names ‘Christian Moueix’ and ‘Pétrus’ seemed indissoluble. He oversaw 40 or more harvests, and claimed to talk to each vine individually; he teased the wine out of its famous ‘buttonhole of clay’, entrusting it to Jean-Claude Berrouet for vinification, and then taking it off by the hand to meet the world.

The Pétrus page on the website of wine merchant Corney & Barrow, formerly the exclusive UK agent (the agency is now shared with Berry Bros & Rudd and Justerini & Brooks), is still full of references to Moueix, and his family’s company, Etablissements Jean-Pierre Moueix. True, it is stated at one point that ‘Jean-Pierre’s elder son Jean-François now owns Château Pétrus’ (long on record for those who troubled to research the matter), but there is no mention of Jean-François’ own negociant company Duclot or its holding company Videlot. Think Pétrus, think Christian Moueix.

But it’s over; it’s history. Has been for three years. ‘Yes, it’s true,’ he replied, when I asked him if he no longer had anything to do with Pétrus. ‘I managed Pétrus from 1970 to 2008; I remained as a consultant to train Olivier Berrouet [Jean-Claude’s son]; but I have had nothing to do with Pétrus since 2011.’

Perhaps there is still an intermingling, I wondered; perhaps the brothers are major shareholders in each other’s companies? Actually, no. ‘Now we are completely separate. That was the purpose, in full agreement between my brother and myself. I knew from the beginning that Pétrus belonged to my brother, before I joined Pétrus. That was clear. I knew that I was going. I was honoured that my father put me in charge of Pétrus, and that my brother left me in charge for so many years. I am still very close to my brother. But it was time for him and his son Jean to be fully in charge.’ Meanwhile Moueix and his own son Edouard…

Well, this is where it gets interesting. Moueixwatchers and Pomerol lovers will have noticed a spate of activity from 54 Quai du Priourat, the Ets J-P Moueix headquarters in Libourne, over the past decade. Land has been bought; names have come and gone, mirage-like; a once-settled landscape of holdings has undergone orogenies and tectonic convulsions. It all begins to make sense when you understand that the good ship Pétrus was steaming off into the sunset, and the two branches of the Moueix family were bifurcating for an entirely separate future. Ets J-P Moueix needs a flagship for the new century, the post-Pétrus century. Who knows what the future holds?

Star-studded stable

As things are turning out, it might even have three flagships. The most straightforward fit for the Pétrus-shaped hole is Trotanoy. It’s smaller still (7.2 hectares compared to the 11.5ha of Pétrus) and half of its parcels lie on clay, giving it a sturdy, truffley style, clearly akin to that of the old master. There is a pedigree of great vintages here; recent vineyard work has fine-tuned its performance; and the arrival of a second wine from 2009, too, marked a new seriousness of intent.

Look, though, at what has happened to La Fleur-Pétrus in recent years. Back in 1995, it was just 9ha in extent; it has now more than doubled, to 18.7ha. La Fleur-Pétrus has also been endowed with a strikingly restored château building and cellars in central Pomerol, where the Moueix family now receives guests in faultless style. The La Fleur-Pétrus flag flutters from atop a flagpole which might just be a little taller (though I haven’t measured) than the pole on which one can spy the golden ‘P’ of Pétrus, not far away across the plateau.

La Fleur-Pétrus, though, will be a work in progress for some years: the Château Guillot parcels need some replanting and draining. The original La Fleur-Pétrus parcels, too, give wine of a very different and more graceful, aerial style to Pétrus itself, since they are profoundly gravelly. The two new additions have perhaps deepened its style a little (the 2009 La Fleur-Pétrus, for example, is lavishly textured), yet the ideal is for this to remain very much a wine of the Pomerol gravels.

And then there is the Bélair-Monange story. Even though it lies in St-Emilion, this now-unitary estate is, at 23.5ha, by some margin the biggest in the Ets J-P Moueix portfolio, and you only have to taste the creamy, chocolatey 2009 and sumptuously upholstered 2010 vintages here to sense just how fine it could eventually prove to be. It represents an elision of Bélair and Magdelaine which, Moueix told me, he had only intended to ask for in preparation for the 2022 St-Emilion classification; he simply alluded to a ‘complementarity’ between the two estates in his submission for the 2012 classification.

The extraordinary fact that the authorities went ahead and granted permission for a major change which Moueix himself wasn’t aware of having asked for was ‘a complete surprise. At first, a shock. Some people thought that Magdelaine had been demoted, and said it was justified’. He smiles. ‘You find out who your friends are on such occasions.’ There will be a second wine in due course at Bélair-Monange, too, and given that Edouard lives there with his wife and children, the bond between the family and the estate will doubtless be intensified. Moueix admits that the light, graceful Magdelaine might have been picked too early in the past. St-Emilion is cooler and later than Pomerol in general, and gathering the Magdelaine fruit was often the picking team’s last job after the Pomerol properties had all been harvested. Last job – but perhaps still too soon. The new girth of Bélair-Monange means that it can justify a picking team of its own, and since Bélair was acquired (September 2008) picking has been much later than heretofore, hence the striking generosity of style of the 2009 and 2010.

Digging deep

Let’s, though, return to Pomerol. Another aspect of the frenzy of the last past 10 years has been subterranean; Moueix has turned mole. Anyone who studies the evolution of Bordeaux’s terroirs over the past 400 years will know that drainage is critical to unleashing their potential – and anyone who has toured Pomerol after a rainy spell will know that drainage here is often inadequate, not least because of the profusion of small estates and parcels (Pomerol reminds me of a giant allotment).

‘The plateau of Pomerol,’ says Moueix, ‘is just that – a plateau. Which means that it is flat. How do you drain something that is flat? It is not easy. And the only way to do it – which we did not have 20 years ago – is to have wells about 6m deep and to create drainage with a slope of at least 2% leading to those wells. Then you have to pump the water to a place where there is natural drainage. For that you have to bring electricity to the wells, and have submerged pumps in the wells.’

Over the past decade, the Moueix family has installed seven of these deep wells in the plateau, with the water eventually draining down to the little Barbanne river via streams like the one which lies in the fold of land between La Fleur-Pétrus and Le Gay. ‘Most of the time we needed to run either the electricity or the drainage exit through somebody else’s property, so we have been signing many complicated agreements for this. And we say “if you would like to send your drainage in our well, you are most welcome”. So honestly, without wishing to be too pretentious, it has been quite a positive thing for the whole appellation.’

Indeed. In great vintages, of course, the wells will be inoperative, since Pomerol needs every drop of water it can hold (retained water in sub-gravel clays was a key reason why Pauillac and St-Estèphe outperformed the purer gravels of Margaux and Pomerol in the fierce heat of 2003). In less-thanperfect years, though, this network of new wells has the potential to raise quality for the Moueix properties and its plateau neighbours considerably. It’s also won Moueix an unconventional term of endearment from his wife Cherise: ‘I call him “Mr Drainage”. He is always ringing me up from all over the world and asking me to look out of a window to tell me how a drain is working.’

Other hallmarks of the Moueix approach in the vineyards include deep inter-row ploughing, carried out four to six times a year, and fastidious cropthinning over the summer to eliminate all the late clusters. ‘People used to see that I harvested earlier, and criticise me for that, saying that Christian Moueix didn’t want to take risks. But the reason was that we were riper earlier than the others, because we had eliminated all the late clusters.’

‘The day of picking is incredibly important,’ adds Edouard. ‘At Hosanna, for example, if we pick it a day early, it’s green. If we pick it a day late, it’s prune. I exaggerate, but only a bit. We walk every parcel, every day. We subdivide parcels with red and white ribbon. And we unroll between 7km and 8km of ribbon before every harvest.’ Trotanoy itself has been the subject of special attention, especially for the parcel known as Le Hangar to the rear of the property which had consistently underperformed for many years and which Moueix and his son were contemplating uprooting. Following comprehensive re-trellising, modified pruning and further drainage work, it is now ‘the heart of Trotanoy’, according to Edouard.

Elegance and drinkability

It’s been a decade of major effort in the vineyards, and fruit sorting is taken as seriously here as it is everywhere else in Bordeaux. Relatively little, though, has changed in the Moueix wineries, not least because the aesthetic ideals of the family – ‘always towards elegance and drinkability’, as Edouard puts it – require vinification of maximum restraint and limpidity. There’s more use of steel tanks than in the past, principally because of the sub-parcel divisions; it’s easier to make a small steel tank than a small concrete one. Extraction and the use of new oak remains restrained (a maximum of 50% new oak is used at Trotanoy, for example, with 40% at Hosanna, La Fleur-Pétrus, Latour à Pomerol and Bélair-Monange, and about 25% at the other properties).

The Moueix vision of elegant, drinkable wines has sometimes been criticised as being austere in the velvety Pomerol context. The changes in viticultural and winemaking practice – in particular parcel selection, improved vine performance thanks to the drainage and trellising innovations, later harvesting at some properties and greater selectivity for the final blend – suggest that the Ets J-P Moueix wines will have greater aromatic precision and more textural wealth in the future. They are already more consistent than in the past.

It’s also a long, slow moment of generational transition at Ets J-P Moueix, as Edouard gradually takes over from his father. This is only an outsider’s view, but to me Edouard seems a better fit for the role than any father had the right to hope for.

No one, of course, anywhere in the wine world could outdo Christian Moueix for humorous, courtly charm – surely a key factor in the acquisition of so much land, in the teeth of what must have been ferocious competition. The handsome, articulate Edouard is hardly deficient in charm either, but there’s a tougher, more pragmatic side to his vision. (Local rumour suggests his father has a streak of ruthlessness; if so, it remains artfully concealed.)

The two seem to work well together, and share the same ideals and aims, the same delicacy of touch, the same aesthetic way of enjoying life and conceiving of wine, and the same congenital, modest outlook despite the family’s cascade of good fortune over the past three decades. No Pétrus, it’s true; but no matter.

Andrew Jefford is a Decanter contributing editor who writes a monthly column for Decanter and ‘Jefford on Monday’ blog for Decanter.com

Written by Andrew Jefford

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