Inimitable Mitjaville: the wines of Tertre Rotebœuf

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François Mitjaville / Robert Billington

A visit to François Mitjaville is inevitably memorable. At Tertre Rotebœuf, contemporary Bordeaux—in reality just over the horizon—feels a world away. That’s partly because its proprietor is so uncommon: it would be easy to imagine this ‘charming genius’ at home among the Enlightenment philosophes; an impression only intensified by his elegant eighteenth-century farmhouse and the pastel linen waistcoats he habitually wears. But it’s also because Mitjaville produces some of the most singular and striking wines in all Bordeaux.

They defy simple characterisation. On paper, of course, one might be forgiven for aligning Mitjaville with Saint-Emilion’s so-called garagistes: after all, he harvests late and raises his wines in all-new barrels. But there the similarity ends, and one sip of Tertre Rotebœuf is sufficient to dispel the misapprehension. ‘Modernist’ wines, inkily extracted, are always invoked with disapprobation at this address, and Mitjaville retains his admiration for the sternly classical aesthetic of Château Figeac, where as a stagaire in the 1970s he received his only formal tuition in winemaking.

At Tertre Rotebœuf, in fact, ripeness is pursued not in search of concentration but in the cause of terroir expression. This 5.7 ha vineyard forms a south-facing amphitheatre perched on the Saint-Emilion côtes; a natural sun-trap, planted predominantly with meticulously-cultivated Merlot. Its cool clay-limestone soils retain moisture, sustaining the vines so ripening proceeds uninterrupted even in warm weather. Mitjaville contends that this terroir is therefore disposed to produce wines of advanced maturity which retain vibrancy and freshness, seeking fruit which is, as he so eloquently puts it, ‘sumptuously degraded’ while remaining ‘fresh and dynamic’.

In the cuverie, classical macerations with gentle extraction take place at warm temperatures (up to 35°C), followed by a comparatively long élevage in new oak, all from Tonnellerie Radoux (‘I would rather be a large client of a small cooperage than a small client of a large cooperage’). Racking decisions are made by taste, the objective being to ‘civilise’ the young wine, taming rude tannins and boisterous primary fruit in favour of refinement and complexity. This unusual marriage between fruit picked at the peak of ripeness and rather old-fashioned, moderately oxidative élevage is arguably the decisive human factor in Tertre Rotebœuf’s singularity.

It’s hard to find a vinous analogy elsewhere in Bordeaux, though by virtue of its elegantly sumptuous exoticism Pomerol’s Le Pin might be a candidate. In fact, Mitjaville’s wines often have a rather Burgundian feel, sometimes reminding me of Claude Dugat’s Gevrey-Chambertins. Like Dugat, Mitjaville also excels in more challenging vintages, 1999 and 2007 being exemplary successes. His wines rank among my very favourites in Bordeaux, and the tasting notes below record some of my encounters with them.

Tasting notes

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1982 Tertre Rotebœuf: This wine, the third vintage vinified by François Mitjavile, was raised in cuve and used barrels, so it represents a different era for Tertre Rotebœuf. An evolved and tertiary bouquet of grilled meat, dried cherries, autumn leaves and mushroom introduces a mid-weight wine with some of the sweetness one associates with the 1982 vintage, melted tannins and juicy acidity with a slightly fraying, ferric finish; in gentle decline. 84/100

1985 Tertre Rotebœuf: The first vintage of to see new wood (50% new), this wine is a much more lively animal than its 1982 sibling. A healthy deep garnet, its lifted bouquet of dried cherries, damson and Asian spices is the prelude to a sweet, succulent and supple wine with melted tannins, juicy acids and a lovely sense of transparency. 88/100

1989 Tertre Rotebœuf: A memorable bottle, which I had wanted to try for a long time, François describes this as his breakthrough vintage. After a short decant the wine bursts from the glass with a complex bouquet of dried red cherries, darker fruit tones, subtle mocha, quasi-Burgundian sous bois and “beef blood”. On the palate the wine is supple, fresh and powerful, with notable body and concentration: ample but refined. Drinking à point to my taste. 95/100

1993 Tertre Rotebœuf: François Mitjavile contemplated declassifying this vintage, and considering that this wine is an undoubted success. Notes of sweet dried fruit, exotic spice and grilled meat are followed by a supple, well-balance wine in a rather evolved, empyreumatic register; in gentle decline, but quite an achievement nonetheless. 85/100

1997 Tertre Rotebœuf: This wine is a success for the vintage, notably superior to the 1993 at this stage, with a distinctive bouquet of espresso, fig and black cherry, and a medium-bodied, supple palate impression with good concentration and the inner sweetness comes from advanced maturity. As Mitjavile says, ‘I would prefer to pick ripe fruit in the rain than unripe fruit in the sun’. 90/100

1999 Tertre Rotebœuf: The 1999 is another triumph from Francois Mitjaville, and a personal favourite, bursting from the glass in a blaze of decadent black fruits, exotic spice tones, tar, cedarwood and autumn leaves. On the palate the wine shows a lovely balance between fruit which is rich but not confectionery and bright sappy acids. The tannins have nicely melted and some tertiary complexity is beginning to emerge, but it will still be cruising along in a decade. With this wine, Mitjavile completely subverts the reputation of the 1999 vintage, and the result is something like Saint Emilion’s answer to Musigny. 94/100

2000 Tertre Rotebœuf: The 2000 is a spectacular wine, with a decadent bouquet of creamy ripe black fruits, exotic spices, tobacco, tar and mocha—barrel, fruit and terroir are elegantly knit together into an harmonious melange. On the palate the wine is rich, textural and obviously ripe, but the fruit retains vivacity and sap through the energetic finish. Few winemakers can manage ripeness and high levels of new oak so deftly, entirely avoiding the sucrosity, back-end heat and uncovered oak tannins that mar so many modern Saint-Emilions. 96/100

2003 Tertre Rotebœuf: This is a delicious, textural rendition of Tertre Roteboeuf that wears its heart on its sleeve, coating the palate with black cherry, spice, coffee, tar and melted dark chocolate. Supple, ripe and expansive, with nicely refined, detail tannins. One of the successes of this difficult right bank year. 90/100

 2005 Tertre Rotebœuf: It is still early days for the 2005 Tertre Rôtebeouf, but the wine is already quite expressive, bursting with spicy ripe blackcurrant, tar, mocha and some incipient truffly soil tones. On the palate the wine is rich, broad and structured, and is much less expansive and open at this stage than the 2000 as the tannins really need a few more years to melt away. This will be spectacular in the fullness of time. 96/100

2006 Tertre Rotebœuf: An expressive bouquet of ripe cherry, tobacco, raw cocoa, espresso and caramelized blood orange introduces a ripe, full-bodied and expansive wine with fine, ripe tannins underpinned by juicy acidity. Supple, elegant and beautifully balanced. An underestimated vintage at this address. 94/100

2007 Tertre Rotebœuf: Aromas of blackcurrant and black cherry, toasty oak, wood smoke and burning embers are followed by a complex, texturally refined wine framed by bright acidity and savoury tannins, with complete ripeness and concentration unusual for the vintage. Another compelling wine in a difficult year. 93/100

2008 Tertre Rotebœuf: A terrific wine from François Mitjavile, this is a very Burgundian-styled vintage for Tertre Roteboeuf. Crunchy wild berry fruit and incipiently complex notes of earth, cedar and sous bois mingle with a strong cooperage signature (coco, vanilla, coffee) which will need some time in the cellar to integrate. On the palate, crisp acids and supple tannins frame a wine of great intensity and purity. Lovely wine. 94/100

 2009 Tertre Rotebœuf: In keeping with the personality of the vintage, this is a ripe, extravagant wine of notable power and texture, and it will need time in the cellar to lose some of its fat, but this is a lovely wine, with all the classic signatures of this property in a ripe year. 95/100

 2010 Tertre Rotebœuf: When I tasted this wine a week before it was bottled in July, I thought it was utterly glorious, and out of bottle, my high opinion was confirmed. From cask, this wine was decadent, with an almost confected nose of ripe mulberries, black cherry, mocha, spice and espresso. In bottle the wine has become more classically taut, though it could only be described as reticent by contrast with that wonderful cask sample. The impression is of amazing richness and amplitude without any sense of aggressive extraction. One of the wines of the vintage, and one Mitjaville believes numbers among his greatest hits. 100/100

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