Twenty years ago this summer, on a diabolically hot day in France’s Midi, I would stumble upon a ramshackle building south of Narbonne that had been repurposed as a winery/tasting room. Well, I think it was a winery, too, but I was only interested in the tasting part.
I had driven down from a dreadful place, essentially a failed amusement park in the middle of nowhere that Tour de France organizers had inexplicably deemed worthy of hosting a crucial individual time trial, with only one thing on my mind: a cooling breeze off the Mediterranean. And Narbonne Plage was only minutes ahead. But a Dégustation sign with an arrow pointing off to the right turned my head. The beach could wait. A short detour was very much in order.
The place was called L’Hospitalet and the interior was, curiously, mostly decorated with rugby action photos. Lots and lots of them. Fortunately, the bloke behind the bar spoke perfect English — it turned out he was an Irishman — and had a ready explanation for me. The owner was both an aspiring winemaker and, it seemed, the former captain of the French national rugby team.
His name? Gérard Bertrand.
As a sports writer and a wine maven, although not yet an official wine journalist, that combination intrigued me. Better still, the wines I tried were excellent, something that, back in the day, wasn’t a certainty when one tasted in the Languedoc, which for much of the 20th-century had been known for mostly producing plonk.
At any rate, I vowed to return one day, especially after how wonderfully charming I found Narbonne Plage. For a day or two, I thought seriously about buying a condo there but quickly came to my senses. Did I really need to own a second property in France? Uh, no. So that was the last I thought of L’Hospitalet and its rugby-playing proprietor for a very long time.
Cut to February of 2019 and the weekend I retired from the Houston Chronicle. I was visiting another beach town, Miami Beach, attending a party at the Versace Mansion hosted by . . . Gérard Bertrand. There, I got to finally meet the man himself, and he was impressive in every way possible. Late in the evening, he even rapped with a band that he’d flown in from France. Yeah, rapped. Learning that my wife and I had a permanent residence in France, his team invited me to visit the Bertrand headquarters in the Languedoc for a full-scale tour and immersive experience.
So, on another brutally hot July afternoon in the South of France — as I sped through the Southern Rhone Valley, my Peugeot told me was 114 degrees outside — I again found myself heading for Narbonne Plage. But this time there was much fancier sign pointing toward a splendidly restored building that had been transformed into a luxury inn with a top-drawer restaurant.
“Merde,” I said. “That’s the same place. I’m back!”
And I’ll return again next week, leading a group of very nice people on a wine tour through Provence, the Southern Rhone and Bertrand’s neck of the woods in the Languedoc, where he has built a wine empire upon a foundation that his father Georges, one of the region’s most respected and forward-thinking grape-growers, laid decades ago.
Gérard worked his first harvest with his dad in 1975, when he was 10, and they spent a dozen good years together in vineyards when he wasn’t honing his world-class rugby skills. After his father died tragically in an accident in 1987, he made the decision to keep the family’s Villemajou estate and, five years later, he launched his own company, soon purchasing the Cigalus Estate, Château Laville Bertrou and the Aigle Estate. L’Hospitalet had become his in 2002, not long before my serendipitous visit.
Today, Château la Sauvageonne, Château la Soujeole, Clos d’Ora, Clos du Temple, Château les Karantes, Château Aigues-Vives, Cap Insula, Château des Deux Rocs, Château de Tarailhan and the Estagnère Estate are all his, too. His entry-level Cote des Roses wines and the Gris Blanc rose are widely available in Houston — Spec’s and Kroger are where I find them — and around France. I buy the same bottles in my town’s Casino supermarket.
The Clos du Temple may be the world’s most expensive rosé at $250. Bertrand’s flagship, the Clos d’Ora, a blend of syrah and carignan from very old vines and mourvedre and grenache from turn-of-the-21st-centry plantings in the hills of La Viviniere, sells for close to $300. Like the Clos du Temple, it’s worth every penny. But the wines mentioned in the previous paragraph go for under $15.
One day, every bottle with Bertrand’s name on it — and that’s a whole lot of bottles — will be biodynamic. He became a true believer in same after starting with Cigalus in 2002. He’s got three children. He’s determined to do what he can to keep the planet liveable for their kids and grandkids.
I’m delighted my crew is going to experience firsthand what I accidently stumbled upon years ago. And I’m delighted to be returning myself to again experience what Bertrand calls l’art de vivre. I do believe the man has figured that out. Did I mention that he also hosts a world-class jazz/pop festival at L’Hospitalet every July?
Anyway, I’ll be hyper-focused on my tour over the next couple of weeks — it begins Thursday in Aix-en-Provence before wrapping up in Nice June 4 — so I’ll be off the blogging grid until after I return to Houston in mid-June. However, I’ll be posting like a crazy person on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook as we visit many of my favorite wineries, starting in the Var Friday at La Mascaronne, owned in part by the new Hall-of-Fame hoopster turned vigneron Tony Parker.
Unfortunately, Parker won’t be on-site today. I would have loved to quiz him about Victor Wembanyama, presumably the next great French hoopster who will surely come to torture the Rockets, too. Damn lottery!
Sippin’ with Sporty
Faiv Blancs de Blancs
From the winemaker: “Dry and fruit forward but has a definite acidity to cleanse the palate. Elegant and smooth. Pair with pasta with creamy or truffle sauces and fish.”
From me: It’s not everyday that you see Arneis bubbles. A friend who loves traveling to Northern Italy gifted me a bottle here in France and damned it wasn’t being sold in Houston at Tuttili, too. Wonderfully refreshing minerality and citrus notes in this Marchisio Family Organic Estate sparkler from Castellinaldo d’Alba, about 25 miles southeast of Turin.
$28 at Tuttili
2019 Chateau Pas De Rauzan Bordeaux Supérieur
From the winemaker: “A pretty garnet colour, it’s dark and intense. Beautiful aromas of small red fruits on the nose. The expressive and supple palate is embellished with crunchy red fruits.”
From the Wine Enthusiast: “Packed with fruit, this is going to be a generous wine. Certainly its tannins are very present, but the weight of the ripe berry fruits will come to dominate. There is a juicy crisp aftertaste.”
From me: It’s a merlot-centric (70 percent) wine that’s truly a superior Bordeaux Superieur at a super price. The winery, with 80 hectares of vines, has been in the Fourestey family since 1890.
$11.57 at Spec’s
Il Palazzo wine dinner with co-owner Lorenzo Pitirra — 7 p.m. Thursday, May 25, at Roma. 713 664-7581.
Nine and Wine — National Wine Day: 6 p.m. Thursday, May 25, at Riverhouse Houston. $30 http://eventbrite.com
Tolaini Tuscan Wine Dinner with Lia Tolaini-Banville: 6 p.m. Thursday, May 25, at the Rainbow Lodge. $165 plus tax and gratuity. https://www.rainbow-lodge.com/tolaini-wine-dinner
Woodlands Wine & Food Week: Monday, June 5, through Sunday, June 11. http://www.wineandfoodweek.com
The Sports Page
Pouring one out for . . . Jim Brown
Truth to tell, I hated him as a kid because of how he ran over, under, around and through my beloved Baltimore Colts in the 1964 NFL Championship Game, pounding out 114 yards in a 27-0 Browns romp, after which I stayed in a funk for a week. But he forever defined what a running back should be. Although the NFL season was only 12 games long for his first four years, he averaged 1,368 yards over his nine seasons and 104.3 per game. He led the NFL in rushing eight times and claimed three MVP trophies before walking away while still in his prime, which goes a long way toward explaining how he lived to the ripe old age of 87. After a second career as an action-movie hero — Remember the Dirty Dozen? — he became a vocal and widely respected advocate for social justice.
One of my sports-writing idols, Shirley Povich, composed one of the epic sentences in sports-writing history after Brown had shredded the still lily-white Washington Redskins in 1960: “Jim Brown, born ineligible to play for the Redskins, integrated their end zone three times yesterday.” Ironically, it would be Bobby Mitchell, Browns’ backup in Cleveland, who became Washington’s first Black player in 1962.
Podcast: Sporty Wine Guy, wherever you get your podcasts.
Facebook: Dale Robertson
Others to follow
Jeremy Parzen (http://dobianchi.com)
My podcast partner in crime reports on the catastrophic, “unprecedented” rains and flooding in the northern Italian region of Emilia-Romagna, which have forced tens of thousands to abandon their homes and killed at least nine people.
Sandra Crittenden (http://winelifehouston.com)
Sandra shares her latest story for Galveston Monthly, featuring wines she tasted recently in Paso Robles.
Russ Kane (http://vintagetexas.com)
The Texas Wineslinger shares his thoughts on, and personal history with, Gary Gilstrap’s Texas Hills Vineyards, whose wines are made, he says, in a lean Italian style.”
Jeff Kralick (http://thedrunkencyclist.com)
The Drunken Cyclist and a group of Houston wine pros recently tasted 53 “true” American rosés, which is to say rosés made from grapes grown specifically for making pink wines. You’ll find their conclusions in two posts. He swears this is the largest such sampling in the whole USA.
Katrina Rene (http://thecorkscrewconcierge.com)
Kat provides a rundown of Texas wine happenings in the merry month of May.