Christian Moueix, Château Pétrus
Interviewed by Oleg Cherne
Unlike other wine regions in Bordeaux, Pomerol AOC still lacks a wine classification. The winemakers themselves oppose it; nobody wants to rank second or third, as all of them are proud of their wines and are ready to fight to the end for them. Local producers believe that this situation guarantees their freedom in winemaking. However, there is a generally acknowledge king here, his majesty Château Pétrus, the pride of Établissements Jean-Pierre Moueix.
A vineyard with an area of 11.5 ha will yield no more than 23,000–24,000 bottles of wine a year. If the quality of the wine does not meet the Moueix family’s high standard, it will simply not be marketed, notwithstanding the huge investments and expenses. Today, the demand for Pétrus is consistently higher than the supply.
Meeting Christian Moueix, the head of world-famous winemaker and négociant Ets JP Moueix (Établissements Jean-Pierre Moueix), based in Bordeaux, is like meeting an astronaut or a superstar. Arranging such a meeting is not easy in the first place, but one must also adapt to his idiosyncrasies.
They gave me an hour, which set my schedule, and I arranged a meeting with the renowned Pierre Lurton (manager of Château d’Yquem and Domaine de Chevalier Blanc, owner of Chateau Marjosse) after visiting Moueix.
Here I must provide our hero’s historical background. The history of négociant company Établissements Jean-Pierre Moueix began in 1937, when Christain Moueix’s father, Jean-Pierre, decided to sell wines from the right bank of the Gironde, from the municipalities of Pomerol and Saint-Émillion (which at the time were overshadowed by the Grand-Cru wines of the left bank), Getting involved in this business, Jean-Pierre could not stay away from the art of winemaking, and in the 1950s, he started to buy vineyards and châteaux, including Châteaux Petrus, which soon became famous all over the world.
In 1978, our hero, Christian Moueix, became the head of the company. He continued the practice of buying new châteaux in Pomerole. For example, the company recently bought Château Belair-Monange. It is a unique establishment: some of its vines, which cover 14 ha, were planted in 1901. Christian Moueix himself said that «it is a very delicate, very complex winery, which requires serious investments.» His company is ready to spend at least 10 years making major investments to ensure that all the changes and innovations bear fruit and make it possible to create another great wine brand in Bordeaux.
Right now, the company positions itself mainly as a négociant company. The production of its own wines makes up about 20% of its activities. (Négociant company is a French term meaning a wine seller who collects the production of small winemakers and sells it under its own name. The Moueix family upholds the rule according to which the whole production cycle must take place in the châteaux, allowing the personality of the wine to be preserved).
But these are just numbers. I had no idea of how to interview this unusually energetic person, who kept coming and going from the room where the interview was taking place. He brought a book by Pushkin, and we began discussing the great poet. But, I’m sorry, I don’t have much time. With all due respect to Pushkin, how will I manage to get things done?
— Christian, how did you join the family business? (I fire my question, trying to get our conversation back on track.)
— I began my career in 1970, when I joined my father. I graduated in agricultural engineering in Davis, California. I studied viticulture and ecology.
— I’m not hiding that my main focus in this interview is Pétrus. (I briskly steer the conversation towards this wine, without letting him delve into the topic of agriculture.) Tell me about the creation of the Pétrus brand. How was it established?
— Pétrus was my father’s personal property, and he was the managing director of the château for a long time. Now, my brother distributes Pétrus in France, while I take care of exports. Of course, the fact that Pétrus is related to a large négociant network is a great advantage for us.
Grapes for Pétrus are harvested in 4–5 days. As we have many workers, the harvest usually only takes 12 hours. Precision here is paramount: the grapes must be harvested at the ideal moment.
Overview of Bordeaux Wines
The Bordeaux wine region is located in the Gironde department (in the large region of Aquitaine, Latin for «land of water»), on the Atlantic coast. The Bordeaux region is conventionally divided into the right and left bank of the Gironde estuary (the mouths of the large rivers Garonne and Dordogne, which flow into the Atlantic ocean), and wineries in Bordeaux are located on the banks of the Gironde, Garonne, and Dordogne rivers which flow into it.
The oldest recognized wines come from the left, west coast, with their blends dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon. The oldest estate in Bordeaux is Château Pape Clement, which recently celebrated its 700th anniversary.
In 1855, by the order of Napoleon III, the Grand Cru Bordeaux classification was drawn up. It only included wines from the left bank of the Gironde River, covering the large Medoc, Haut Medoc, and Graves subregions. This historical classification is topped by five red wines, the so-called premier cru: Château Lafite Rothschild (Pauillac Municipality of the Haute Medoc subregion (Paulliac AOC)), Château Mouton Rothschild (also from the Pauillac AOC), Château Latour (Paulliac AOC), Château Margaux (Margaux Municipality of Haute Medoc, (Margaux AOC)) and Château Haut-Brion (Pessac Municipality of Graves (Pessac-Leognan AOC)).
A separate classification was created for sweet white wines, and of those, Château d’Yquem (Sauternes Municipality of the Graves subregion, Sauternes AOC) was proclaimed the best, premier cru superior.
Wines of the right bank are dominated by Merlot, supported by Cabernet Franc. The Grand Cru classification, however, did not encompass those. In the 20th century, Jean-Pierre Moueix’s négociant company, Ets JP Moueix, played a huge role in the popularization and promotion of wines from the Right Bank.
Currently, the unofficial list of the great wines of Bordeaux, along with the five premier cru and the sauternes premier cru-superior from the left bank, includes three wines from the right bank: two wines from Saint-Émilion AOC — Château Cheval Blanc and Château Ausone, and Château Petrus from the Pomerol AOC, the wine of the Moueix family. As we mentioned in the beginning of the article, unlike Saint-Émilion, which accepted the classification used for the left bank, Pomerol does not have a wine classification yet.
— Can it be said that Petrus’s philosophy focuses on the naturalness of harmony and concentration?
— A very good definition! The distinguishing features of Petrus, of course, are in the soil, the terroir. It’s a small, loamy hill with an amazing soil on the top of the hill, the so-called Pomerol plateau.
— And you are not able to make wine which meets your standards every year.
— Yes, we believe that if the conditions were not right, if there was a natural disaster, we do not produce our wine. That is, we just declassified it.
The area of the vineyard is 11.5 ha, and in the last three years, due to all the problems with the weather, we produced very little wine: only about 2,000 boxes, that is, 24,000 bottles. Our selection process is very, very strict!
— So, you don’t believe in selecting the grapes and adjusting the wine?
— No, we harvest all grapes, we make wine with the whole harvest, and then, when it’s ready, we try it. And only then we decide to declassify some tanks. That is, every year 20% to 40% of the wine is rejected, or even 100%, as in 1991. The decision is made once the wine has already been produced.
— In my opinion, you should not enjoy such wines as Châteaux Petrus with meals. It’s a cult wine, it was made for conversation, for work, for meditation… it’s a wine that must be savored. Of course, you can have some cheese, bread…
— You know, in French culture we don’t agree with this! I cannot drink wine, great wine, without food. My stomach could not take it! Of course, every morning I taste about twenty different wines, but I can’t drink wine as an apéritif! Usually, in the morning I taste 20–30 wines, then I go back home and drink champagne to clear my taste receptors.
As for combining food and wine, several studies were conducted: many famous sommeliers meticulously studied the rules for combining food and wine. I definitely agree with them when they say that certain dishes ruin the taste of wine. It’s just that some people correctly believe that together, food and wine create a special, magical combination…
— As I understand it, you pay serious attention to all natural changes and associate viticulture with the phases of the moon and energy changes?
— You know, we, of course, have always been interested in the climate in general and in climate change. We respect nature, try to understand it, and sometimes try to interpret it, and in this respect, we strive to strictly adhere to scientific approaches.
— I asked this question for a reason: I know that your winemaker Jean-Claude Berrouet used to pay considerable attention to this.
— Jean-Claude is our honored oenologist, he worked in Pétrus and other estates. He’s retired now, and his son has taken his place. But Jean-Claude, of course, has not retired completely, he continues to be a consultant — not only for the company’s wines but also for wines of other estates. Can you imagine? Jean-Claude Berrouet created 43 wines! How could we give him up? He’s a living memory, a true encyclopedia! A global brand.
Of course, we are still interested in these studies. You know, there are several stages in biodynamics, as it’s called today. We were the first in this area 30 years ago. We had a small vineyard in Saint-Émilion (we sold it some time ago). That’s where we started to use biodynamics. We were the first in the region.
And here everything is great when the weather is good. But did you see the storm yesterday evening? How can you apply biodynamics with these storms? You risk losing the whole harvest! If I tried to do this with Pétrus, they would tell me: «Monsieur, you are completely out of your mind!» Things are simple here. Here, in Bordeaux, with this climate, pure biodynamics won’t work.
This sector of agriculture involves the abandonment of chemical fertilizers. To fertilize the soil and control pests they use compost prepared in a special way with the addition of homeopathic medicines. An important component of biodynamics is the rethinking of traditional peasant farming methods that fell out of use in the industrial era, as well as the correlation of farming rhythms with macrocosmic factors: the influence of the phases of the Sun, Moon, and celestial bodies.
Biodynamics was founded by the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925), a student of Krishnamurti, and Helena Blavatsky, the author of treatises in the field of philosophy and the theory of science. She is also the founder of anthroposophy, the «science of the spirit,» which is used in practice in architecture, theater, and education; it is also widely employed by many modern companies and banks.
Some winemakers in Bordeaux apply the biodynamic method without stating it on the back labels. The largest open follower and promoter of biodynamics is Michel Chapoutier from the Rhone Valley, who owns 250 ha of vineyards.
The pace of my questions created some tension for Moueix, but this could be the only chance I’d get, so I had no choice but to continue to increase the pace. However, Moueix started to get a little nervous and left the room a couple of times.
— In Russia, almost everyone knows the word Pétrus. Usually, the wives of rich men like to discuss this. When you ask them «Which wine do you drink?», they answer «Pétrus, of course.» «What do you drink Pétrus with?», «It’s good with chicken.» The problem is that Pétrus is a very famous name, but when you talk to people, you get the impression that they don’t understand the idea, philosophy, or taste of this wine. And naturally, as a person who believes in taste and quality, I’m surprised and even worried about this attitude. It’s like when a person who is not an art expert begins to express an opinion about such canvases as the Mona Lisa del Giocondo.
— We don’t worry much about this. And you know, the reason is this: when success is such that it is difficult to control, in any case, it applies to everything. There is always a part of a myth, a part of a mystery. All this contributes to the birth of the legend.
— This is understandable: if we focus on the importance of promotion in the market, then any reaction is good. But from a cultural point of view, it is at least controversial, when there are two boxes of Pétrus on the table in order to wash down some weird food… What do you think, how much fake Pétrus is there in Russia?
— As you know, fake Château Petrus exists, but I have never met people who drink fakes. We communicate only with our personal distributors, who work for us and whom we know in person. We work with the Russian market and we know it well.
— Do you think it’s possible to know the Russian market well?
— Oh, it’s hard to understand Russia, because it’s such a huge country! You cannot talk about one market… there are many markets, and geographically, it is simply impossible to talk about a single picture…
But since we work directly with Russian distributors, we are mainly interested in letting them studying the market, to better understand the needs of this market. We try to meet these needs.
I used to go to Russia often, so I know the Russian market quite well. For us it is important both emotionally and economically.
We often need to be correct, because, in Russia, there are many people who actually love Pétrus, but they do not want to attract attention, so they simply remain in the shadows. These are the people we are interested in and not those who arrange large banquets and drink wine the way you said.
That is, we, too, through our loopholes, are trying to find our people, true connoisseurs of real wine.
— Which Russian regions do you visit?
— Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Yekaterinburg… Of course, now the market is developing more and more actively, but ten years ago, when I was in your country, all distributors were concentrated mainly in these cities.
— You know, I know the Russian wine market rather well. In the country, there are only a few winemakers, and the culture is forming only now.
— Everything will come in its proper time. Of course, it’s a slow process…
— Yes, it is a slow process, but the problem is that the circle of people who consume wine is expanding much more intensively than the circle of those who understand it.
— You have touched upon a very important issue: education. In Russia, education usually takes place through publications about wine. I think evolution is an unavoidable and extremely important process. This applies not only to Russia but to all other markets as well.
It must be said that the lack of wine culture is more characteristic of other countries, because Russia, as a whole, is not a new market for wine. Two factors are important on the Russian market: first, Russia also produces wine, that is, there is already a culture of wine consumption because wine exists at the national level. And secondly, in the old days, about which the younger generation today does not know, the best wines in the world were consumed in Russia! When I read Pushkin, I find many direct confirmations of this. So, the heritage remains.
Today, we are making great efforts to properly organize our distribution network in Russia. We have several partners, and we are now trying to an agreement with them to write the importer’s name on the back label. This is one of our ideas on how to protect our name and educate the market.
I think that we will reach such a quality of education that the understanding of taste that you talk about and write about can happen through your activities, as well as the work of distributors… Japan started from scratch, and in thirty years many wine connoisseurs have appeared in the country.
— Yes, but at one time the Japanese stopped drinking Bordeaux wine altogether because, instead of developing their taste, they were overwhelmed with low-quality wine.
— Any market is a precipice where everything falls, everything flows…
— Here I am talking more about the sellers… if the culture of those who import wine developed as actively as the wine, this precipice would not exist.
— This is extremely important. That’s why we organized a sommelier school for the distributors we work with. For us, this is a very important project, that promotes our wine and educates taste.
People who work, professionals who try to educate and promote the market are essential for us. They are extremely important for us, as we produce high-quality wines. And these people must instill confidence in their customers, who then invest their money and buy our wine.
— Did your sales decrease during the crisis?
— Of course.
— I think that… can I give you a piece of advice?
— Sure. I’m open to recommendations.
— I think that now you should worry not about how much to sell on the Moscow market, but about preparing the market in 2–3 years. Everything is changing now.
— Thank you for your advice, it’s very good feedback. If we talk about philosophy, this is a core value for the company, a family value. Our philosophy is to think about the future. This is our strength: we don’t aim for a quick profit, we prefer to think about the future. To think whether we will still be with these people after two, five, ten years. This is the strength of a family business: to think about the future.
— Yes, this is very important. It is necessary to understand that Russia is not only Moscow and Saint Petersburg and that it is extremely important to look into the future. I think that it is a very good time in Russia now, because some kind of cleaning is underway, a lot of unnecessary things are dying off. This is why I started this project, although many people told me: «What are you doing? The situation is bad for everybody, and you decided to publish a magazine!»
— Everyone here knows that it is necessary to start during periods of crisis.
— To continue talking about the philosophy of your company, what else would you note?
— The first point of our philosophy is that wine should be made in the vineyard. As long as there are good grapes, we are simply obliged to make good wine. The quality of the grapes is fundamental.
Next, of course, the expression of terroir is important. Here we respect the soil. There is no technical secret, no concentrators or evaporators, we make wine in a classic way. The third is respect for grapes or raw materials, not using modern technologies and exceptional precision in our operations.
— You know, I met Arnaldo Etcharta from Mendoza. When I arrived, he was drinking his wine and he just looked at me. I sat there and waited. After five minutes he asked me: «Why are you here?» I said, «I’m here to talk.» «Have you read Borges?» and he started to read to me. I said, «Hey!» «Really?» and he continued reading, drinking his wine and reading Borges. Then he asked, «Do you want to learn about Argentinian wine?» I said, «Yes!» «Then you must learn about the culture!»
— This is true, this is definitely true.
— Argentina is mate, tango, Borges… And then we began drinking his wine. The idea is that you cannot approach good wine as something mediocre.
— I completely agree. You, know, to talk about it you need hours and hours. But what’s really important?
What is culture? It has a double meaning: in French, «culture» is also agriculture, and I am more than sure that terroir has a memory.
For example, wine, grapevines, grapes… Why do the wines produced in Pomerol taste like cherries? Where did the name Pomerol come from? It means «orchards,» cherries used to grow here. Whereas in California, for example, plums used to grow. So, Californian wines taste like plum, when you try them. Pauillac, cassis (black currant)… that’s what the concept of agriculture means to us.
I totally agree with the fact that to understand Argentinian wine you have to read Borges. When I started making wine in California, I read Steinbeck there, and here I read Michel de Montaigne. Then Mauriac… Michel Montaigne had his own wine castle, 20 km from here. His Essays… what could be better?
So, I’m talking about a double approach to culture: agriculture, cultivating the land, and literature.
— But I want to say even more: grapes also take the genetic memory of the soil, and we can talk about the Gauls, the Celts. We can talk about the Templars, the Benedictines.
— About the Romans, as well. Near Saint-Émilion, where Château Belair is located, there are still Roman stones.
Time was running out, not so much for the dialogue with Moueix as for the expected Pierre Lurton, and this made me position myself in a rather awkward way. I felt it in Moueix’s energy, and I expected that he would say «That’s enough» at any time.
— You see, most of all, I am worried about Russia. (I continued anyway.) And I would like you to bring your culture here, in the first place. You are a label, and a word from you is worth five from someone else. There was a lot of «easy» money in Russia, and many people drink wine not because they understand its taste, but simply because they have a lot of money. But in fact, this is not a problem, I am worried about what is happening in restaurants, in small towns… I know Russia well, I constantly travel across it, from west to east. Good wines have arrived, but, unfortunately, cities cannot buy them directly, they do so only through Moscow. You should definitely invite people from the regions if you cannot go there yourself.
— You know, this reminds me of the Japanese market again. In 1972, a lot of expensive and nevertheless bad wine was sold there, there was a period of crisis. Then they were educated, they educated themselves, and now we are happy to go there because we have real experts in front of us. They have an understanding of wine and a sense of sophistication.
I think for Russia… unfortunately it’s really true that mediocre wines were often sent there. The current crisis, of course, is primarily economic, but I am more than sure that Russians will become great experts and connoisseurs of wine. And your magazine plays an important role in this. This is a very positive moment for the development of quality perception of and feeling for wine.
Then our conversation switched to mediocre definitions, and because of the lack of time (and I wanted to visit Châteaux Pétrus before it was too late), I switched the topic to Châteaux Pétrus itself. And then the unexpected happened. Moueix said that we were going there immediately and that we would see everything on-site. But physically I could not do this, since I had another meeting, and I had only one hour.
And then I blurted out to Moueix something like, «I’m sorry, but I don’t have time for Petrus.» And then the drama became a tragicomedy. Moueix simply didn’t know what to say, he ran out of the room and ran in again, waving his arms and swearing. The plot of the show had become more complicated.
But I could not go back, Moscow was behind me. And at this critical moment I told him, «What about a photo?» Moueix answered, rather briskly, «Ok.» We went to another room, where I added, «And the wine?»
So, he brought the wine, we tasted it and took a picture. At this point, one should say «turn off the light!» but Moueix ran away somewhere and half a minute later returned with a bottle of Pétrus 2005 and, with a somewhat eccentric look, held it out to me with both hands.
My expression was indescribable. «For me? Pétrus 2005!» I could barely speak. «Yes,» he said. So, Moueix surprised me again, and I began to feel as if I had entered the fermentation stage. I felt like reading Pushkin, which Moueix had kindly opened for our meeting.
«I don’t know what to say, monsieur Moueix!» «Pack it,» he told his assistants. «And let them go since they don’t have time.»
The man leaves with the bottle; after five minutes Moueix disappears again, then he comes back and gives me a branded box with the Petrus-2005. We warmly say goodbye and I go to Pierre Luton, where more interesting events are awaiting. The next day, they called me and asked me to return the bottle. «Things are getting interesting,» I thought.
«Unfortunately, they got the bottles mixed up and they gave you wine which is still being studied. We are a respected company and we don’t want unapproved wine to leave our Châteaux,’ that’s more or less what they said. ‘Please, send it back to us and we’ll send you an approved wine.»
Literally the next day, when I was already in Bulgaria, I sent the bottle back, but I did not get any wine in exchange. I wrote this to make you understand that Petrus is not just wine: it’s the essence of Moueix himself and his actions. I want to show Moueix in such a way as to make you understand that not only do great people express themselves in a peculiar way, but they have the right to do so.