Henri Bonneau’s death earlier this year was a great loss to the Southern Rhône. I count myself fortunate to have visited and tasted with him several times; visits which left an indelible memory. The article reproduced below was first published in Noble Rot (10).
Henri Bonneau’s washing machine whirrs into life as we stand in the hall, waiting to be introduced. This man, who made his first vintage in 1956, embodies the patrimony of Châteauneuf du Pape, so we are all conscious that this is a special moment. Fragile but lively, decked out in his trademark dungarees and cap, the glint in Bonneau’s eye gives no indication that he has only recently emerged from a prolonged stay in hospital. Indeed, he jokes from the very beginning: ‘students from Oxford? Oxford, that’s good. I studied at HEC: Hautes Etudes Communale’—he puns on the name of France’s leading business school, the HEC, Hautes Etudes Commerciales de Paris. Talking about his time in hospital, he complains that the food was rotten: he’d have starved if a friend hadn’t brought him woodcock. And referring to a perennial theme, the Algerian War, he observes, ‘Combatant Bonneau was famous in the regiment. He drew the most blood. Every ten days I had to butcher a cow at the very least’—for he was the regimental cook. The Algerian War, women and gastronomy are actually more popular topics with Bonneau than winemaking. We are lucky to receive such a cheerful reception: on our next visit, we learn what happened, years ago, when Baron Philippe de Rothschild attempted to arrange a tasting. The Baron introduced himself, and Bonneau assumed he was being made the victim of a practical joke: ‘The Baron de Rothschild? Yeah, and I’m the Pope. Now bugger off!’ he replied, only later realising his mistake.
But Henri Bonneau is more than an inimitable character: he is the custodian of a tradition. Since the death in 1997 of his friend Jacques Reynaud, the notoriously eccentric proprietor of Château Rayas, Bonneau is now the solitary standard bearer for a unique style of wine-making that harks back to the nineteenth-century. His warren-like cellars, located opposite the parochial church, are the antithesis of scientific oenology. Robert Parker compares them to the ‘biohazard room in a video game’, and they upstage even Rayas in dirtiness. Aromas of dried ceps and funky animal smells fill the air; slimy-looking minerals seep from the walls and ceilings, dripping into small stalactites. The steps are carved out of the earth, and wooden planks patch up holes in the floor where, long ago, ice was stored for the enjoyment of the inhabitants of the Papal castle that gives Châteauneuf du Pape its name. As we move from room to room, tasting Bonneau’s different wines, we encounter vessels of all kinds: enamelled steel tanks, glass demijohns, and barrels of various sizes—the latter all of indeterminate age, but mostly ancient and crusty. Old bottles sit in plastic crates, enveloped in mould. Everyone spits on the floor and walls, while Bonneau perches against barrels, holding his walking stick and tastevin, commenting on the wines and their vintages.
There must be few wineries where so many different vintages and cuvées are still in cask undergoing their élevage: in May 2013, some of Bonneau’s 2005s had yet to be bottled. And at this domaine, élevage really does mean raising the wine to maturity: the wines are racked from vessel to vessel, from cask to tank and back again, as they move between oxidation to reduction, refining their tannins and developing their flavours, until Bonneau thinks they are really ready to bottle. One suspects that he is also a master blender, like the late Jacques Reynaud, and that wine or lees from more recent vintages may reinvigorate cuvées that are soon to be bottled. His art is above all to draw out the wines’ complexity and refine their textures during this long upbringing, all the while preserving their often amazingly vivid fruit. These are not wines that will taste like cask samples when you pull the cork.
The first of Bonneau’s two reserve bottlings is the Réserve des Célestins, which hails from the famous plateau of le Crau; a darkly-fruited, wild wine that marries the generous dimensions not unusual in this appellation with an ineffable balance that is so much more rare, and which often attains the completeness that is the hallmark of the world’s grand crus. The second, from vines north-east of Courthézon, is the Cuvée Marie Beurrier, a wine that typically displays red fruits, and which carries less fat on its bones. Framed by savoury tannins, and with none of the sucrosity of modernist Châteauneuf, both are long-lived: what Henri believes to be his greatest vintage, 1989, is still some years away from maturity. And for all their power and intensity, both are an admirable complement to the rich cuisine of the South—as one might expect from a noted gastronome, who cooks his famous bœuf au carrotes, he tells us, with his 1992 Châteauneuf and a dash of very old cognac, and who enjoys les joyeuses—beef or lamb testicles—with Hermitage’s Gérard Chave. Above all, however, for Henri the important thing is to drink the right wine at the right moment: open a stunning bottle with a fool, he says, and it’s no good; but a refreshing 2002 by the river after a great day fishing is wonderful.
As we taste together, Bonneau voices strident opinions. Asked about viticulture, he puns that he practices ‘Bonneau-dynamics’: he never bought into potassium fertilizers and herbicides, preferring to work the way his father did. While some have reported that Bonneau doesn’t value old vines, that is inaccurate, for he warmly insists on their superiority. In fact, he despises the modern Grenache selections that became popular from the 1930s, which have mitigated the variety’s susceptibility to coulure (or shatter) and produce massive clusters with a poor ratio of solids to juice. Syrah comes in for censure too: in the northern Rhône it expresses terroir, he says, but it’s out of place in the south, yielding nothing but colour and alcohol; too much has been planted. Nor do the Rhone’s consultant winemakers impress Henri: he finds their hand heavy and homogenising, complaining that everyone’s wine tastes like their neighbours’ these days. He jokes about how fashionable new oak barrels became in the 1990s: ‘in Châteauneuf, people couldn’t afford new oak, so they just dumped a handful of sawdust in each cask’—though, needless to say, that never happened chez Bonneau, where used barrels are purchased from Burgundy. He speaks of the importance of stems, and of managing volatile acidity, which in small concentrations can give lift to the sometimes corpulent Grenache. No modernism here, then.
Indeed, while the region’s other benchmark, the ethereal Château Rayas, is so unique that it sometimes seems to deserve its own appellation, Bonneau’s wines are quite simply the apotheosis of traditional Châteauneuf du Pape; sauvage wines of the south but with rare breed. Yet although he commands unanimous respect—even reverence—among the town’s vignerons, very few seek to emulate his old-fashioned methods. This is a region that has experienced more than its fair share of stylistic change over the last two decades, and Bonneau’s magical wines are a reminder of what has been lost. His family have made wine here for twelve generations, but the tragic murder of a nephew who had been initiated into the mysteries of Henri’s way of working has imperilled the tradition, and exactly how it will be preserved for future generations is unclear. It is alarming to think that his methods, and with them an important part of the heritage of Châteauneuf du Pape, may not outlive the master himself.