When it comes to the art of winemaking, Frenchman Gérard Bertrand is just champion, writes Christine Austin

Gérard Bertrand was straight off the plane from London when I met him at Château l‘Hospitalet in the south of France a couple of weeks ago.  He had just received one of the ultimate accolades in the wine business – that of Champion Red Wine for his Chateau l’Hospitalet Grand Vin AOP La Clape 2017 in the world-famous wine competition The International Wine Challenge and the excitement around the company was tangible.  ‘We all gathered together this morning and were congratulated for our part in making this wine such a success’, said Laura Coulon, who showed me round the estate which is close to Narbonne.  Winemaker Ghislain Coux was clearly delighted by his wine’s success and beamed happily throughout our tasting.

If Gérard’s name sounds familiar it is quite likely that you are a rugby fan.  He played professional rugby for France for many years, but has always had wine running through his veins.

‘I was just 10 years old when I started to help my father with the vineyards,’ he said, ‘and then I took over the business while I was still playing rugby.’ He has expanded the business and it now includes 15 estates dotted across the Languedoc region, which together comprise a vast 920 hectares of vines.

What is astonishing about these vineyards is that they are all worked biodynamically.  This is several steps beyond organic and essentially takes the biodiversity of the land into account.  ‘It is important to preserve and sustain the environment and find harmony and a balance of ecosystems in winegrowing, not only for today but for future generations’, said Gérard.  Biodynamics is not just an expedient business philosophy, Gérard has even written a book about the links between wine, moon and stars – the profits of which go to the Good Planet Foundation.

So with many estates, vineyards, biodynamics and the need to make and sell a lot of wine, that should be enough for one business – but no.  Ch. l’Hospitalet (chateau-hospitalet.com) is a hub for tourism in the region.

With 38 stylish rooms, a restaurant, swimming pool, tennis court and mini-golf, this is the ideal place to while away a few days while you are exploring the region. Choose your dates wisely, though. In mid-summer there is a famous jazz festival that attracts world-class musicians and goes on until the small hours.  One year Gérard even managed to get the French equivalent of the Red Arrows flying overhead.

What makes the wines so good?  Clearly Gérard is a man devoted to detail.

Each estate has been evaluated for its soil, microclimate and suitability to certain styles and varieties.  Ch. l’Hospitalet is in the centre of a 1000-hectare national park, which runs down to the Mediterranean sea.  Back in the Middle Ages the estate was a hospital, hence the name, and vines have always grown here, making the essential connection between wine and health.

I went up to one vineyard, which if you are staying at the hotel, and the weather isn’t too hot, is an easy post-lunch walk.  I wasn’t saying there and it was an exceptionally hot day, so it was a bumpy ride to the cliff-top to look down on a vineyard, protected by raised banks but still clearly influenced by the sea beyond.  Here local grape varieties of Syrah and Mourvèdre were ripening, developing flavours and picking up notes of salinity which transfer into the wine.

Another property, La Sauvageonne, which was once owned by Yorkshire businessman Fred Brown, joined the Gérard Bertrand portfolio in 2011 and has since been converted to biodynamic cultivation.  Located further inland from l’Hospitalet, in the midst of beautiful hillsides, in the Terrasses du Larzac, it is between 150 and 350 metres altitude.  This means that it always has a cool breeze blowing through the vines and at night the temperatures tumble, preserving fresh flavours in the grapes.  Based on basalt, schist and red ruffes soil, this is ideal for Grenache and Syrah.

Top of the range, Clos d’Ora is in La Lavinière in Minervois, 220 metres above sea level and is based on limestone, sandstone and marl.  Discovered by Gérard in 1997, it took five years to create the first wine released under the Clos d’Ora name.  This is the only winery I know of with a meditation area alongside a fermenting room and barrel cellar.  Just to be different, the fermenting room is in the open to promote cosmic influence. Clearly at this company, and in particular at Clos d’Ora, biodynamics is not just a box-ticking exercise.  This is a wholehearted commitment to harmony with the earth, moon and the stars.

The fact that Gérard Bertrand has won the accolade of Champion red wine, against thousands of wines that entered the IWC shows that this estate is making seriously good wines.

The 2017 Ch. l’Hospitalet 2017 was not available when I was at the property, but I tasted the 2016 version, and according to winemaker Ghislain it was tasting just fine.  Based on Syrah with 40 year-old Grenache vines, Mourvèdre and Carignan adding flavour elements it had delightful crushed raspberry flavours shot through with savoury herbal notes and with streaks of black olive on the finish.  Like many competition-winning wines, most of the stock seems to have disappeared directly into restaurants, but Winebuyers.com has some at £264.25 for 6 bottles.

La Sauvageonne Grand Vin 2015, is made from a similar blend of grapes, grown on different soils and at altitude and it has a freshness amongst the dark berry fruit and gingery spice.  Find this at Corking Wines in York at £25.26 (01904 373043).  Corking Wines also has the fabulous Clos d’Ora 2013 made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, Carignan and Grenache at a contemplative  £168.48 a bottle.

To start with it is well worth heading to the supermarket shelves of Waitrose and Morrisons which both stock Gérard Bertrand wines.  Waitrose has the supple, rounded bramble fruit of Minervois, Syrah and Carignan at £9.99 while Morrisons has the smooth, cassis and plum-packed Merlot currently on offer down from £8.75 to £6.50 until 3 September.

About The Author

Christine Austin

Christine is a wine writer, broadcaster and a wine judge for several international wine competitions. She has a technical background and spent five years as a buyer for a major supermarket before moving to wine writing.She writes for The Yorkshire Post Magazine and organises the York Festival of Food and Drink. She has won both the Lanson and the Roederer prizes for wine writing.

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