Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward

Memories of Henri BONNEAU, Master of Châteauneuf

August 2019. When three years ago I learned of the death of Henri Bonneau, I felt a deep pang of regret, even though I’d only met him once. That sadness quickly gave way to a reminiscent smile. Which quickly became a chuckle. That single meeting had occurred more than 20 years ago but it lives on in my memory. An unforgettable experience, one that deepened my knowledge of men, manners, and of wine.

 

 

Quite simply, he made some of the most natural, affecting, and monumental of all Châteauneufs – of all wines, for that matter. He was very hard to track down, even though he lived in the centre of the village. True, a sign beside his door gave his name; but it was smaller than a postage stamp and must have faded to near-illegibility years before. In a fog of indecision, I circled the tiny medieval square four times before I decided that this particular house had to be the right one.

 

I rang the bell with some trepidation. A noted recluse, Bonneau was said not to take kindly to visitors. The door flew open and a fresh-faced man with bright blue eyes faced me. With his high forehead, wind-blown white hair, and rapt expression, he made me think of William Blake. He certainly had that visionary look. “What do you want?” he demanded gruffly.

 

My mind went blank. “I’m an artist, a painter by training”, I stuttered, “and I find, er, that there’s a close affinity between art and wine. And I’ve heard that you’re a great winemaker.”

 

He stared at me for a moment, grabbed my arm, and pulled me inside his dark, ancient house that smelled of the 17th Century. In no time at all he was plying me with a succession of stupendous wines pulled from various corners.

 

“No secrets,” he told me as I stumbled after him across cratered floors. “Some cuvées are better than others and you shouldn’t blend them.” He poured a jet of black-scarlet wine into my glass. “The small grower does less well in off years. Why? Because he doesn’t have the sophisticated equipment. My ’87s and ’82s are terrible! God knows who I’ll sell them to – all my customers are my friends… But in the good years the small grower makes the best wine of all.”

 

The 1989 Châteauneuf in my glass – from a mere six of hectares of vines, of which 80 per cent were Grenache – was a slumbering giant whose aroma, though dumb, spoke volumes about the its richly concentrated fruit and complex terroir. The fat, gamy flavor was long, powerful, and yet somehow full of refinement. I almost went into a trance.

 

A true artist, Bonneau didn’t give a fig for publicity, and at first didn’t even want me to take notes. “No! No!” he almost snarled. Luckily, though, he relented, suddenly shrugging his acceptance. He then extracted a sample of an ’88 from a barrel with his pipette. It had masses of fruit but was a bit oxidized. From another barrel in an especially murky corner he culled a second ’88 that was simply stupendous. Dark but glittery, almost luminous, it had a fruit-laden aroma of such power that my hair nearly stood on end. It packed an almighty punch and the condensed, vinous aftertaste was bolstered by firm tannins. In my notes I predicted that it would be memorable around 2000-2010.

 

The firmly structured ’86 was even more impressive. The massive aroma shot out of the glass like a genie from a bottle, engulfing the whole cellar in a complex aroma of sweet autumn berries, spices, and ripe damsons. In the mouth, it was crammed with Grenache and Mourvèdre fruit and had all the ripe tannins needed to ensure a life of more than 20 years. The wine could only have been fashioned by a grower who tended each of his vines individually, and vinified with the same passion that van Gogh lavished on his paintings.

 

I seldom eat breakfast at 11 am and never drink wine with it. But the irrepressible Henri Bonneau had me doing just that – not so long after I’d already breakfasted at my hotel – and I didn’t mind at all, since I had the pleasure of Bonneau’s wonderful company and was drinking his silky, voluptuous ’85 Châteauneuf while munching cured ham and farmhouse cheeses.

 

As I left he pressed three bottles of wine on me. Without labels. He wasn’t sure of the vintages but hoped they would taste good. They did.

 

Henri Bonneau was one of the most influential winemakers in Châteauneuf du Pape and made his hard-to-find wines there for 60 years. He died in 2016, aged 78, from complications arising from his diabetes. He was survived by his wife Jacqueline and his son Marcel.

 

© Frank Ward 2019

 

 
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