I met Alain Brumont at The Stand, over a nice dinner arranged by local wine merchant Elie Boudt, and when I gripped the knotted, platter-sized hand of Brumont in greeting, I was struck with an overwhelming moment of déjà vu.
It was briefly unsettling, because I couldn’t pinpoint the feeling. Brumont’s hand is thick and gnarled as a hundred-year-old Gros Manseng vine, so when I embraced it, I anticipated sandpaper and calluses. But Brumont’s palms are like velvet; gentle and warm and the grasp sincere, and…
Then it struck me. I remembered who else had hands like that, years ago, when I was a kid: Grandpère, my paternal grandfather.
I only met the old guy a few times—he lived four thousand miles away, and as far as I know, he never once set foot outside the small Swiss village where he was born. But we’d visit him over summer break, and I remember being eight or nine and how his hand felt in mine when I clutched it and it felt exactly like Brumont’s. The husk was tanned and rough, the knuckles gnarled and the fingernails stained, but the underside was soft as a baby’s rump, like Grandpère had been soaking in Madge’s Palmolive overnight.
Once I worked through the memory, the rest of the evening with Brumont was incandescent; the lilting flow of Brumont’s voice—who, like Grandpère, spoke no English yet seemed to measure and choose his French words carefully, as if that might help a monolingual American understand them. I understood what I needed to, and learned the rest via a translator.
Feudal France was divvied up into duchies, and the duché de Gascogne, where Brumont’s Château Montus nestles, was once under the rule of Eleanor of Aquitaine, among the wealthiest women in Europe and instrumental in launching the Second Crusade. These days, Alain Brumont wears the crown in Gascony; he is, in the best sense of the word, a cult leader, and his crusade has primarily involved the Madiran appellation’s pet varietal, Tannat. Before Brumont came on the scene, Tannat was producing bitter, clumsy wines that required years to mellow and often did not have sufficient background fruit to survive the process. Much as the popularity of the local fat-rich comfort casserole Cassoulet fell out of general favor in the 1980s with the rise of leaner, cleaner nouvelle cuisine, so did the the lumbering Tannats of Madiran begin to seem dated and dumb.
The key to the Brumont’s unparalleled success is found within the Tannat’s labor-intensive rehabilitation; the wines of Château Montus are often listed among the icons of Southern France and mentioned in the same breath as Haut-Brion, Rothschild, Yquem. Brumont’s first Montus vintage, 1982, won accolades and according to him, Cuvée Prestige in 1985 ‘unseated 300 years of dominance by Bordeaux and Burgundy’.
“I rank Tannat among the world’s great red varieties, no question,” Brumont says. “But it a grape that requires constant management. To bring out the best, the winemaker needs to prune carefully, six or seven times a year, restrict yields and only pick at maximum ripeness. Our vine rows are perfectly orientated so that the grapes get 15 hours of sunlight each day and each grape receives individual attention.”
Early on, Brumont’s obsessive approach to lieux-dits earned him the nickname ‘Mr. Digger’—his neighbors discovered that he was fond of digging up the ground at various locations throughout the appellation to assess soil structures—and he is unabashed about admitting it: “I dreamed of terroirs every night; it got to a totally unreasonable level. I got to know every square meter of the region. I went terroir-mad, stone-mad.”
The method to the madness was his subsequent purchasing strategy: He began to buy up Madiran hectares, but forwent the pricier, fertile land where corn and wheat are predominant cash crops in favor of steep, rocky plots where vines show best. There’s some intrigue throughout Brumont’s rise to stardom, some cloak and dagger, and part of it involves him forming shill companies to buy land when jealous peers pulled strings in the local land agency, which oversees sales of rural agricultural property and can easily quash any deal.
He also confesses to having used grapes from vines that had not yet reached the legally prescribed age of three year, although he has never acidified nor chaptalized, believing implicitly in the power of the ‘Brumont Discipline’, a philosophy primarily governed by ‘a series of uncompromising choices’. In the vineyard, for example, eschewing the use of insecticides, he separates vines from each other by wooden partitions to prevent ‘contamination’. He adds: “I only use water from our springs, which come out of our unpolluted hills. Our vines have grass growing around them, the land is rich in ancestral plant life…”
“These soils are six million years old,” he adds, sniffing at Châteauneuf-du-Pape’s 400,000-year-old infrastructure as the new kid on the block. “The enzymes and positive bacteria have had that much more time to evolve.”
He discovered the site for his iconic, ten-hectare vineyard ‘La Tyre’ in 1990; the French wine guide Bettane et Desseauve refers to it as The Pétrus of the Southwest, and puts it on the quality level as Vega Sicilia-Pingus. Situated on an ideal southerly slope on the highest hill in the Madiran appellation, the site is scattered with stones and the subsoil is layered with strata of red and variegated clay. As part of the Brumont Discipline, vines are restricted to five or six bunches and wine made from a rigorous selection of grapes involving six different passes through the vineyards during harvest. Wines from La Tyre grapes are full-bore, rich with acid and filled with fierce black fruit, spicy mocha and tobacco—comparable to wines from the Haut-Médoc in Bordeaux.
This may be contrasted to the silkier, less bombastic wines of Brumont’s other estate, Château Bouscassé, which he inherited from his father in 1979. Covering three hundred acres of marbled clay and limestone outcrops, the wines are a blend of Tannat and Cabernet Sauvignon the wines show the tarry elegance of Montus, but in a slightly more restrained and pretty package with cherry and currant in the forefront. Less age is needed to bring the fruit and tannins into stasis, and the wine sells for considerable less—Brumont wines, of course, are across-the-board bargains when stacked against the Bordeaux Premier Cru vineyard with which they’re compared.
Now nearly seventy, Alain Brumont’s eyes still sparkle with ferocious intensity: He simmers beneath a sort of gentle impatience as his words are translated; he seems constrained by his native language, as if the subtle flavors in his words will be misunderstood, perhaps like Tannat and the Uruguayans. “They grow for quantity,” he shrugs and nods, “and there’s too much rain. They get two liters of rain annually; Tannat thrives in half that. They make nice Tannat, but not great Tannat. It is dilute and lacks complexity and purity; it does best when blended with Merlot.”
Before Brumont, blending Tannat was actually a legal requirement in Madiran; he fought the law when it came to the wines of La Tyre, and the law lost. It is, however, the only wine he produces that is pure Tannat—the rest of his reds are blended with Cabernet Sauvignon, up to 25%, and lesser levels of Cab Franc. This can be viewed as Xanax for the more aggressive side of Tannat’s nature, and when all the viticultural stars have not aligned quite as perfectly as they do at La Tyre, are needed to avoid a slide back into the literal black hole of pre-Brumont Madirans.
The white counterparts to Tannat are the Manseng twins, Gros and Petite; these wines are bottled under the separate appellations Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh and Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh Sec, the former sweet, the latter dry, although in tandem they cover the identical area as the Madiran AOC.
Brumont produces both. In his dry Brumont Blanc 2014 ($10) Gros Manseng is blended with Sauvignon Blanc and produces a wine of almost perplexing complexity for the price—notes of ginger and marmalade play against a spice box of applesauce and buttery toast; the wine is clean and precise, but with the unctuous mouthfeel of a Hermitage Blanc.
2011 Château Montus Blanc ($26), which The Stand’s ever-clever Chef Paul Grosz pairs with Tuna Tartare on Risotto Cake, showcases a lighter, more floral nose and a grassy palate with citrus and honey and a backbone of minerality. It’s a blend of Petit Courbu and Petit Manseng; unique grapes grown few places outside the region.
Château Bouscassé and Château Montus ‘La Tyre’, both from the 2009 vintage and priced respectively $20 and $100, are described above, and served as perfect foils to Grilled Quail with Red Wine Braised Blueberries and Beef Sirloin with Celery Root Puree and Shiitake Mushroom. Chef Grosz displays the same fleet manipulation of cuisine subtleties as Brumont does with varietals; the two engaged in a lovely pas de deux of gastronomy.
…Which was demonstrated conclusively in the final course; Pear Tart with Pear/Bourbon Sorbet dovetailing Château Bouscassé Brumaire Doux ($38), a botrytis-heavy late-harvest blend (again) of Courbu and Manseng. It’s rich with candied fruits, but reaches into the tropical panoply, with dried pineapple and concentrated notes of papaya mingling with toasted hazelnut and toffee apples. As a beverage, it is the essence of Indian Summer in a glass—an image that stirs up as many fond memories as does Brumont’s soft, but firm handshake.
Terroir can take a wine only so far; it is the intensity of the winemaker that pushes it across the finish line. In 2011, according to Decanter correspondent Andrew Jefford, Brumont did an informal poll among sommeliers and importers to gauge the name-recognition factor in his universe, Madiran, Brumont, Montus and Bouscassé, and found that his name was recognized over Madiran’s by a factor of eight to one.
Plenty of good growers in Madiran, including Didier Barre of Domaine Berthoumieu, the Laplace family of Chateau Aydie and the twenty members of Génération Madiran—a coterie of younger growers experimenting with nouvelle technologies and techniques, including micro-oxygenation. All of them recognize Alain Brumont for what he has done for the reputation of the AOC in general and Tannat in particular.
To them, without question, Brumont is the father of New Madiran, although to me, and indelibly now, he better fits the role of Grandpère.