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A Visit of Château Pavie

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Gerard Perse, one of the most important men in the Bordeaux wine industry, took me on a three-hour tour of Château Pavie in St Emilion. See for yourself how this man turned a failing château into one of the most prized wines in the region. Complete with many pictures and my 360° panorama of the huge limestone cellar and exclusive heart-to-heart interview with Perse.

While top Bordeau wine critic Robert Parker awarded Pavie its highest rating, other critics are scandalized that such a concentrated, powerful, almost port-like wine could be made in St-Emilion. Gérard Perse [jayrar payrs], the powerful owner of Château Pavie, doesn't mind as his wine now retails for nearly $500 a bottle. Who is this man? How could he turn Château Pavie into such a spectacular success?

Let's follow Mr Perse across his wineyards where he will explain us all about the soil, the type of grapes, the almost bonzai-like cultivation and unique wine making procedures. We will then go down into the cellar and meet the cellarmaster to see how the wine is actually made. Don't miss the 360° panorama: The cellar at Château Pavie [Flash, 920Kb].

Most of Pavie's vines grow on a clay-covered limestone plateau overlooking St-Emilion. This soil combination (terroir) is associated with St-Emilion's top estates such as Ausone. We have a beautiful terroir, one of the best in the region, with gravel at the bottom and sandstone and clay at the top. It is our privilege to try and bring out the best wine we can from this terroir, explains Perse proudly. Now most wine producers will say that their terroir is the best, but I must say Pavie's is pretty convincing. Although you cannot see the limestone from the top, we could clearly see the hilltop's soil structure by checking the entrance of the many quarries from which St Emilion was built. One can still see caves carved out of the sandstone, and the tunnels go underneath the whole appellation and of course the village. Perse tirelessly paces up and down his estate. He shows me the borders of every plot This is Pavie up to here - we placed special wooden poles so our workers know where to stop. How many gentleman-winemakers in St-Emilion walk their estate every day?

The wines of St-Emilion are a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc grapes. Each of these grapes have very different characteristics. Top French Reds like Château Pavie are designed to keep for 20 years or more. That calls for patience and a large amount of tannins. Perse wants his wines to outlive him and since he took over, he has steadily been replacing mellow Merlot vines with tannin-rich Cabernet Sauvignon. The Cabernet Sauvignon gives the bone, the structure, and the Merlot gives the muscle. Cabernet Sauvignon fares better under warm climates, and we bet on increasingly hot summers in the future, so we use more and more of it, said Perse. The rest goes into a cheaper second wine.

Vines are indeed very popular with all sorts of fungi, insects and bacteria, and only a regular treatment with the finest chemicals can guarantee a successful harvest.

The most popular place to collect wild snails has always been vineyards, and there is no lack of snails at Pavie. Are they sleeping it off after a nightly orgy of red wines? If they did, they must certainly be the aristocracy of edible snails. Perhaps one day we'll see 'Escargots à la Perse' in a Sevilla orange sauce on Le Relais de Plaisance's menu?

Vine plots are adorned with rose bushes on each sides. This used to give the winemakers a heads up on the arrival of a disease, much like submariners took aboard canaries as they would pass out from carbon monoxyde intoxication a few minutes before their human masters. Nowadays we have more reliable ways of checking the health of our vineyards and we keep the rose bushes for their esthetic appeal mostly, Perse said.

Some owners never ever walk in their wineyards but hire not one but two consultant oenologists to advise them during the winemaking proper. This is nonsense. You just can't make good wine unless you have good grapes, and the cultivation is just as important as the vinification. Since I took over Pavie we watch over the vines like a garden, explains Perse. I've heard that before, but Perse is the real thing. He continues as we walk in his wineyard: We cut and cut and cut every month. First we take out dense bunches of grapes so that we don't get grapes that are too close to one another and don't get enough sun. Then we remove the grapes who are late to turn in color. We also cut the grape bunches that are too far from the trunk as they get less sap. Later in the year we go back at it again and remove the leaves that could shade the morning sun and the afternoon sun so that the grapes can mature uniformly well. We call this a green harvest, la vendage en vert.

All these grapes thrown on the ground could appear as madness and financial folly. After all is said and done, Perse makes half as much wine as his predecessor Mr Valette did on the same estate. How can one even break even by throwing out half the product?

By making a much better wine, Pavie tripled its sales. But Perse barely makes 90,000 bottles of Pavie a year compared to over 200,000 under Valette. If you do the math, that's a sixfold increase in the per-bottle price. Pavie has definitely become a seriously expensive wine, with some bottles going for $500 a piece while other St Emilion wines just across the road barely sell at 10$ a bottle. Perse also makes several cheaper wines, but with wine consumption decreasing every year and Moldavia, China, and Chile offering their own wines, in which part of the market do you want to be? The future of Bordeaux wines lies in the high-end - no question about that.

But Perse's success does not make everybody happy.

This little tower on the side of Pavie is the former town gallows. People who had offended the all-powerful town council, the jurade, were hanged and left to rot on this spot for all to behold. Just how many winemakers in St Emilion would like to see the Persian hang from that tower is not clear. Fortunately, such wishes can no longer be made a reality. The owners of underperforming properties are faced with the stark truth - if their wines don't sell, it is not due to the newcomers, anti-wine laws, the poor taste of of the public nor unfair competition from the New World. They now must admit that one can make extremely successful wines in St Emilion provided one listens to the market. 'In St-Emilion, as long as you buy wine properties and pour money into them, people don't mind. But if you manage to turn a wine around and make a commercial success, some people take it personally. They think your success is at their expense. Some local wine producers have actually asked wine critics not to rate our wines because they were «new»', explains Perse, not bothered in the least by the envy. Top Bordeaux wine critic Robert Parker awarded 100 points to Pavie's 2000 vintage, a very rare event.

Most wine producers in the Bordelais only drink their own wine. They think other wines will make them sick. I travel a lot and always check wine stores and wine aisles in supermarkets. Every year they sell less Bordeaux. Producers whose family has been making wine for generations often think that Bordeaux makes the best wine in the world, and that if it doesn't sell it's because customers have increasingly bad tastes. But you can't go on making your great-grandfather's wine and except people to buy it. At some point you have to ask yourself what the customer wants and see what other wines are selling. My competitors in St-Emilion don't tell me much, but I hear from wine workers we share. They tell me: «My boss' dream would be to make a Pavie».

As we spoke, Perse apologized and took a call on his cellphone. A few words, then I'm sorry, it was my wife Chantal. She is in Hong Kong for a show and is presenting Pavie to hotel wine buyers. A tough job. Top French wines sell mostly abroad, in America, Asia and Europe. In France the market for high-end wines is minuscule. I sell only about 5 or 6% of our production in France. I sell more wine in Switzerland than in the whole of France. But that takes a lot of travelling. As I point out that travelling the world must have its positive sides, Mr Perse casts me a tired look. When I go to the USA every day it's a new plane, a new city and a new hotel. I have two business lunches a day and spend the rest visiting wine shops. I like the people I meet but this is not walk in the park and I never have one hour to visit anything. For a wine road warrior, Perse certainly is in shape. As a former jockey and cycling champion, he still rides his racing bike over the hills of St Emilion several times a week and never less than 30km (20 miles). Regular exercise, a healthy cash-flow and a moderate but regular intake of red wine - the recipe for a long life.

Perse started out at 14 as a jockey, then moved on to open a small grocery store. A driven and very meticulous man, he moved on to open a supermarket, then six, which he sold for €68 million after tax. He moved to St Emilion near Bordeaux, where he first bought four wine estates and finally Pavie for €36 million in 1998. This certainly proved a good investment and I am confident we will see a Persian dynasty for generations rule over this wine Empire. His daughter already works at Pavie.

So, is it all about money for Mr Perse? I think not. Mr Perse retired a wealthy man after having sold his hypermarts near Paris, and lives in his castle on a 15 hectares estate. But for him, the money is just a yardstick and a consequence of the success of a much larger pursuit - knocking out the Grim Reaper with a bottle of Château Pavie. As I have understood him, Perse aims to put his mark on the St Emilion wine history. 'When people open this bottle in 20 or 40 years, they might say, this is one of the finest wines made in that time'. Eternity in a bottle, that is the master plan.

Let's hear it from the wine itself, spoken from the bottle in Beaudelaire's The Soul of Wine:

For I feel a boundless joy when I flow
Down the throat of a man worn out by his labor;
His warm breast is a pleasant tomb
where I'm much happier than in my cold cellar.

When the cork has been pulled out of all of us, some life lover will open a bottle of Château Pavie and the spirit of the men who worked to make this beautiful wine will emerge from the flask and take the drinker in its warm embrace for a moment. When our names will have been washed from the sand, somebody will remember Mr Perse and how he resurrected Pavie.

Let us now move down to the chais [shay], where the wine is designed, fermented and stored.

All châteaux in the Bordelais are just glorified farms with grand towers and embellishments brought about by successive owners. They are not real castles in the sense of a center of military or political power. Pavie is still elegant and simple, with the production and storage on the left and the offices on the right. But not for long.

Mr Perse walked me through his imminent redevelopment of Pavie and although it will still look modest and well integrated in the landscape, the inside will be much larger. A subterranean garage will be dug 6 meters/20' below the vineyard and a new floor will be created underneath the existing chais (see below). Most importantly, a huge hall opening on large terraces will let Pavie welcome guests, wine critics and journalists in a surrounding worthy of a Premier Grand Cru Classé A, the highest class of St-Emilion wines and Mr Perse's aspiration for Pavie. I am confident he will realize his dream some day.

The first thing Perse did after he bought Pavie was to replace the former stainless steel fermentation vats with brand new all-wood vats. In some very prestigious châteaux they have the vats but when you visit the portholes are always closed. In fact the inside is lined with stainless steel and they only have the wood for the decor. But we believe wood is essential as it lets the wine sip oxygen just as much or as little as it requires, explained Perse, lowering his voice. The grapes are brought on a large sorting table on the other side of the hall, where six girls check each grape before placing them in a conveyor belt on the gallery. A sharp screw tears and crushes the grapes right above each vat in succession, and the grapes fall down. They will ferment and soak up the tannin in the grapes' skins and stems for days before moving on to the chais.

We descended into the sandstone cellar, cavernous, large like an airplane hangar filled with barrels and met Laurent Lusseau, the youthful maître de chais (cellmaster), the third most important person at Pavie after Monsieur Perse and his wife Chantal. He is the man who watches the wine every day in the storehouse. Pavie is made using modern winemaking techniques sometimes inspired by Burgundy, the archrival of Bordeaux. Perse does not hide his many innovations, such as manually mixing the top grape skins and stems layer with the fermenting wine, or cooling down the fermenting vats to increase aromatic richness. Many people in Bordeaux followed suit after they saw the good results we had obtained with these techniques. It is our privilege to help our wine industry to move ahead and make tomorrow's wines rather than harping on yesterday's wines, explained Perse.

If you haven't already seen it, don't miss the 360° panorama of the chais (QuickTime, 920Kb). The oak barrels are quite impressive, each costing over €650/$1000. Much different from the used American Bourbon barrels you see in almost all Single Malt Scotch distilleries, for instance. Seeing the cavernous cellar made me wonder why Perse needed the extra floor he will soon build. When we do the assemblage, combining the wine now stored in these barrels, we have to bring huge stainless steel vats from another of my châteaux. We pour the barrels into those vats and bottle them. There is almost no space left upstairs to even move and we urgently need more space, explained Perse.

I often heard wine-lovers say It would be a pity to drink this wine before it's 10 years old. I always thought that was a rather snobbish statement. Not anymore. Not only it would be a pity, but most probably the wine would be nearly undrinkable. I learned that at my expenses during my Pavie wine tasting:

The beautiful wine made at Pavie is designed to keep for 20 years or more, and it is hardly drinkable before it is 10 years old. The problem is that at Pavie, like most successful châteaux, 80% of the wine is sold right after bottling. This means they need to sell 72,000 bottles of a wine people cannot drink, because the wine is so hard and tannin-rich it almost breaks the glass. This is by design. The wine will gradually turn into an extraordinary product, but that will take a good 10 years and you buy blindfolded. Unless the château can convince people to buy their new wine, no cash will flow into the château to pay workers and new barrels.

The solution to this vital financial problem is the wine critic, of which a château like Pavie receives a hundred every year. How critics can see in the bitter brew the great marvels to come, I don't know. Some must read cards. Others are psychics. Maybe they look at the stars at night above Pavie. I don't really know, but when I tried the Pavie 2007, I had to run for the spittoon. When I emptied the contents of my mouth into it, the spittoon spat back all over my shirt. Monsieur Perse kindly looked away. like Hogwarts' Sorting Hat, it had looked into my liver and saw me for the wine novice I am. I decided to stop wine-fortunetelling and rely on the experience of the seasoned wine drinkers who say it's going to be a good bottle in 10 years' time. I think about 10% of the critics really see the potential of a wine 10 years from now. They try to assess the strength of the tannins and the aromatic richness to predict the wine's future, explained Perse.

Perse also owns the nicest hotel in town, Le Relais de Plaisance, a former inn restored into a luxurious Relais et Châteaux overlooking the city just next to the belfry. That's the view at sunset from the hotel. You can see the whole city, the St-Emilion church and many wineyards including Pavie just opposite. But we didn't come for the view, did we? Let's move inside.

How does Pavie taste? The best would be to try 20-year-old 'Persian' Pavie, but there is no such thing. I ordered a bottle of Château Pavie 1999, the year after the Persian takeover. '1999 is just about ready to drink - 9 years really is a minimum for this type of wine', explains the senior wine waiter while he poured the wine in a huge glass, not to decant but rather to oxygenate the wine. Mr Perse does not filter his wines, so the sommelier left about a fifth of the wine in the bottle. You can't really drink that part as it is mixed will all sorts of grape debris.

Moments later, his colleague came and starts filling my glass. As I took a sip, I almost cried.

Château Pavie [shaataw pavee]
www.chateaupavie.com
Gérard and Chantal Perse
2 Pimpinelle
33330 Saint-Emilion (30km from Bordeau)
France
Tel +33 (0)5 57 55 43 43

Hostellerie de Plaisance
www.hostelleriedeplaisance.com
Hotel and restaurant
Place du Clocher
33330 Saint-Emilion
France
Tel : +33 (0)5 57 55 07 55


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20 Comments

  • #1
  • Comment by Paul Mckenna
Very interesting. Will be on the lookout for Pavie on my travels. Only to shoplift though...

Paul
I will be in St. Emilion later this month.  So the timing on this post works great for me.  I must admit, I am little bit intimidated by all of the information.  Hopefully after spending some time touring wineries, everything will be much clearer.  

Do you have any recommendations for wines that aren't $500/bottle?  
  • #3
  • Comment by Robert Stanley
Fantastic
I felt as though I was visiting the chateau.

Thanks
  • #4
  • Comment by Peter K
Very nice.  It is great to know the vintner, the process of an exceptional wine.  Thank you for this, the great pics and for providing a bit of history of the area (the gallows) HA!

  • #5
  • Comment by Paul beckwith
Dear M Fx,

Terrific article! It is great to see the auslander showing the French how to turn the wines of their grandfathers into the wines of tomorrow. Your piece does a really nice job of explaining some of the key innovations that M Perce has implemented.

Paul
  • #6
  • Answered by fx
Paul, indeed Pavie's prices place it above most pockets, but tonight I stumbled upon a friend who told me he bought a whole case of Pavie right after Perse bought it. A good buy, as they say!
  • #7
  • Answered by fx
Psychgrad, you will have fun in St Emilion. I am no expert on wines and cannot recommend you much by way of affordable great wines. The wine merchants with the shops in the village seem really knowledgeable and don't try to push expensive bottles, quite surprisingly. Give them a try!
  • #8
  • Answered by fx
Robert, thanks for your praise, I hope to include more visits of culinary interest in the future!
  • #9
  • Answered by fx
Peter, thanks for visiting! I almost missed the gallows bit and had to pay my respects with some gallows humor. I hope they don't hang people like Mr Perse, they do a lot to rejuvenate the wine industry and I am proud to have met him.
  • #10
  • Answered by fx
Paul, thanks for the visit and do plan a trip to St Emilion if you can, they have no less than 3 airports around Bordeaux and you can hire a car for the 30 minutes drive to St Emilion. Safer to stay the night to sleep the local product off!
I love this posting, Francois! The photos are incredible. You were so lucky to get an interview with Gérard Perse too. What a coup. Thanks for sending it my way.
  • #12
  • Comment by Jason
Thank you very much for your interesting and very detailed postings. I am a university student and I am doing a presentation about 'Chateau Pavie'. Great thanks for your kind sharing!
  • FX's answer→ Thanks Jason, good luck with your paper!

  • #14
  • Comment by Leovino
What an experience!

I am a big fan of Pavie and collect all the recent vintages of Pavie (99-05).

Wish could visit Pavie this June and check out its cellar tasting Pavie there with Perse.

Appreciate if you'd like to share more details of Pavie visit with me. Skype: leovino3716

Thanks, Great Efforts sharing these with us,

Leo
I've always weroendd about aging wine.  I typically don't have it around that long (longer than 17 minutes though!).  The tip about wines that cost less than $10 is great!  Also, I love the idea of drinking a bottle of your favorite once every 6 months to determine when it tastes best.  You rock, Betty!
  • FX's answer→ Good tip

  • #17
  • Comment by Louis P Ferrari
What struck me most about your excellent article was the common denominator of very successful people.As Mr. Perse walks among his grapes, and thinks about ,and does right by them, he is ultimately rewarded.He is living with his grapes and loving them, not in an office asking questions about and getting information about his ultra-successful vineyard.A perfect example of loving what you do,living it,improving it and doing a better job than the competition.I hope one day to visit.It looks to be a bright spot on the planet.
For Mr. P,
My name is Marie Harris Tousley, gr grandaughter of Hattibelle Chanault Pavey, state of Va, USA.  I have been looking for any info on this winery for years.  Finally discovered you on the website.  To visit this winery, I will have to do it by next year, as I am 81 already!!!! The wine must be exquisite, if it matches the price here.  I want so much to taste it..............The Paveys here immigrated with the Hugenots many many years ago..................and I am going to try to get to St. Emilion one day.  I am living in Hershey, Pa, 81 Cambridge Drive, 17033 and email tousmarie@aol.com.  As a military wife for almost 30 years and two tours to Europe.................I have been to Paris, etc but had little knowledge of the winery!!!!  Bless you for this article.  Bestest, Marie Tousley
I wrote to Mr. Pearse earlier.................waiting to hear!!! Thanks a lot.
Marie Harris Tousley (nee daughter of EvaLillianPavey and Edward Smith Harris.................parents of Eva were Hattibell and William Pavey.........................both deceased now.
  • FX's answer→ Good luck




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