One of the most renowned winemakers of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Henri Bonneau, has died aged 78. Below, Decanter Rhône expert John Livingstone-Learmonth talks about Bonneau's life.
As a true Provençal, Henri Bonneau was adept at keeping his visitors dangling in suspense as he ferreted out seemingly forgotten casks from his warren of cellars under the streets of Châteauneuf-du-Pape in the southern Rhône.
From the most unlikely of settings, he had the ability to conjure great wine – wine of mystery, a splash of decadence here, a dash of rigour there – without being subject to any precise rules of the game that was the fate facing 99% of his vigneron neighbours.
Descended from a long line of grocers and viticulteurs, Henri was undoubtedly pesky. His vineyard, the heart of it on the sand abutting Château Rayas, was pretty unkempt and disorderly; he was adroit at propagating semi-legends, part myths, about his wines to journalists, and he even exercised a ban on my visiting his cellars after I wrote about his views on Napoléon Bonaparte.
A master blender
However, like the late Jacques Reynaud of Rayas, he was an absolutely master blender. He respected and extolled the qualities of the Grenache, then took liberties with other grape varieties, vintages, whatever lay to hand. The results, particularly with his Réserve des Célestins in cool rather than heated vintages, could be spectacular: the 2005, bearing traditional Châteauneuf richness and all-important freshness, was a real beauty.
Likewise, he was the most hearty diner, with offal and France Profonde dishes high on his agenda. The Marie Beurrier cuvée was named after an aunt of his wife Jacqueline from Charolles, ‘the home of all good beef’.
One of his regular sorties was a no holds barred encounter with Jacques Reynaud and Robert Parker jr at the Beaugravière restaurant at Mondragon, famed for its black truffles and for its enormous wine list. Tales could be told, conviviality could be enjoyed.
An indelible mark
Henri left an indelible mark on the people and the wine community of Châteauneuf-du-Pape; he certainly reminded them of an age when much of Châteauneuf was made up of five or six hectare vineyards, when one could dream about making great wine, despite limited resources.
He will be sorely missed in the village, but also by his fans and followers around the world.