The Wines of Bergerac – A chat with Pierre Desmartis

by Martin Walker

It will soon be ten years that I have known Pierre Desmartis, one of the first Bergerac winemakers to become a friend. We met in Paris, celebrating the way he’d just won three gold medals in a row at the Paris Concours. To give somebody else a chance they gave him the overall Prix d’Excellence instead.

Pierre was the first of the makers of Bergerac white wines to astonish me with the level of quality he achieved. Most of the Bergerac Secs I had tried before were perfectly quaffable but seemed destined more for a quick glug or to mix with crème de cassis to make a Kir than for a serious wine with dinner. For that I usually turned to a Sancerre, the white Burgundies or a Pessac-Léognan from the Bordeaux.

But Pierre poured me a glass of his Cuvée Quercus and I was blown away. This was a white that was serious, instantly rich, almost lavish to the nose. Full of fruit and seductive at first taste it then savoured very long in the mouth. Since then, having been similarly awed by Les Verdots and Jaubertie, by Château Feely and Châyeau Payral in the Saussignac, by the Montravel whites of Château Puy Servain and Moulin Caresse, I have learned that Pierre is far from unique. The Bergerac is full of devoted winemakers and I love to seek them out and spread the word.

I still think Pierre is special, even though his Cuvée Quercus white is now 11 euros a bottle (I remember writing that it was the best white wine I knew for under ten euros). But now I may understand his secret. We were standing in his chai, chatting as he showed me one of the cheap glass-fibre vats with which he began before he could afford the big inox vats, when he said something about using the carbonised gas from his Monbazillac to help make his Cuvée Quercus. This sounded different so I asked him to elaborate.

He has rigged up a system that uses the heavy carbonised gas from a big vat of Monbazillac to come down a smaller tube and then into the top of big oak barrels in which he’s making his Quercus. The gas is inert but also heavy so it allowed the skins and fruit to stay longer in the white wine while the gas blocks any oxygen from coming in to turn it all into vinegar. We started laughing as he described the cardboard and sticky-tape system he used to seal the barrels and I was thinking: so that’s how he gets that depth of fruit!

Pierre is not a secretive man. He loves to share his ideas and methods and he’s been a real pioneer in using video on his website to give people a sense of the different kinds of work that go into making wines throughout the year (www.vieille-bergerie.fr). His latest video is about the family in Portugal that he went to visit because they provide his corks. Pierre firmly believes in buying the best, long and properly treated. (Be wary of winemakers who scrimp on corks, he says.)

Talking with Pierre you always learn something, like the way he gives his Malbec vines a bit more branch in the pruning, so it will bear more grapes and lose some of the intensity and harshness that can make it a difficult partner in blending. He thinks the way climate change is increasing the alcohol strength of Merlot is best managed by planting Merlot on north-facing slopes. He reckons that the appellation system is going to have to adapt to climate change by being more flexible about permitting different varieties of grapes. Syrah and Grenache are for him obvious candidates for the Bergerac appellation.

He has three properties: four hectares of frost-prone valley near Pomport for his Monbazillac; an even smaller 1.3 hectare vineyard for his Pécharmant, and the remaining six hectares just north of Bergerac. His father was a market gardener near what is now Bergerac airport. His mother’s father was a winemaker in the Monbazillac. Pierre studied horticulture and was for a while a sheep farmer before becoming a winemaker.

“It’s all farming,” he says with a shrug. “But wine isn’t just about producing great grapes. Competition is getting harder, from cheap Bordeaux to South African wines. The big supermarkets drive down prices. It’s tough for a small guy, having to do my own marketing.”

Two of his wines boast the latest Guide Hachette Coup de Coeur and he grins as he tells me this in a way that reminds me I’ve yet to meet a winemaker who was not fundamentally happy.

His Pécharmant and his Monbazillac ‘Laure,’ each at 9 euros, are a bargain and so is his 5-litre box of rosé at 15 euros. Treat yourself to the special Quercus brand: the white is 11 euros a bottle; the Pécharmant is 17 euros and the Monbazillac is 19.50 euros. Pierre also sells wonderful honey from the bees that roam his vineyard.

Martin Walker, author of the best-selling ‘Bruno, chief of police’ novels, is a Grand Consul de la Vinée de Bergerac. Formerly a journalist, he spent 25 years as foreign correspondent for The Guardian and then became editor-in-chief of United Press International. He and his wife Julia have had a home in the Périgord since 1999 and one of his great hobbies is visiting the vineyards of Bergerac.

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