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Q&A: Chantal Perse, Chateau Pavie, St-Emilion

Chantal Perse and her husband began buying estates in St.-Émilion in 1993
© Rebecca Gibb | Chantal Perse and her husband began buying estates in St.-Émilion in 1993
Chantal Perse and her husband Gerard, a supermarket magnate, purchased Saint-Émilion estates Château Monbousquet and Château Pavie in 1993 and 1998 respectively. Since moving to Bordeaux, they have made major improvements at Pavie, resulting in its 2012 promotion to premier cru grand classé A.

How did people react to your moving into Saint-Émilion?

Not very well! Perhaps because we arrived with money. We bought a vineyard with no father and grandfather before us. My husband is very clever – he has an idea of top quality and he made a green harvest and improved many things in the vineyard, and many people looked at him and said he was completely crazy... he has too much money, he does funny things. It was a little difficult to start with, but after a while, it was not a problem.

What state was Pavie in when you purchased it in 1998?

Not very good, but that's also why we could buy Château Pavie. If everything had have been in a perfect state, it would have been [too expensive] to buy it. We had to replace the winery and aging cellar, and we had to replant the vineyard. There was a lot of work to do, but this is one of the best terroirs in St-Émilion. It was urgent to do something, because the cellar was very, very old, with large concrete tanks.

How has the wine style changed since you arrived?

There was a big change in style between 1997 – the last year that [former owner] M. Vallette was in charge – and 1998. In the first year, we halved the yield by green harvesting. We harvested very late, too. Everyone in Saint-Émilion had finished picking when we started and so our grapes were very ripe – more concentration. The change was very clear.

On the other hand, between 1998 and now, I don't think there's been a fundamental change – we know the terroir better and it's been more of an evolution.

Has the varietal mix changed since you took over?

Today, when we replant we are trying to change the variety due to global warming. We have a lot of merlot and a little bit of cabernet sauvignon, so we are changing to have better balance and have less powerful wines. The problem in Bordeaux today is that the sugar levels in the grapes rise very quickly. At the moment, it is 70 percent merlot, 20 percent cabernet franc, and 10 percent cabernet sauvignon.

Château Pavie was promoted to premier cru grand classé A in 2012. A plaque at the estate has yet to be updated
© Megan Mallen | Château Pavie was promoted to premier cru grand classé A in 2012. A plaque at the estate has yet to be updated

Did you expect Château Pavie to be promoted?

We hoped. We weren't the judges, so we hoped and we were rewarded. But it's a panel that [decides] who can be upgraded, according to the quality of wine, the quality of the terroir. It's a jury, who have criteria that are strictly defined.

What was it like on the day you heard you had been promoted?

First of all, very happy, emotional, and very proud. And also, we said to the staff that it's very good but we have to work more and more to maintain our position.

How did you celebrate?

We invited all the staff to the vineyards. We had a lunch and my husband gave everyone a bonus.

Are people jealous of your success?

Yes, people are only human. Everybody thinks they're doing all that they can, they're working hard and don't understand when they're not rewarded for it, when there's a new classification announced.

I've seen people that were disappointed with the classification. They were happy for us, but there was a little pang of jealousy at the same time. It doesn't bother me. I am sure that everything we have done has been very well done – we haven't cheated.

You increased your price by more than 50 percent during the very difficult 2012 en primeur campaign, while most of Bordeaux reduced their prices by around one-third. Why?

We increased our price by around 58 percent to reflect our new classification. If we hadn't done it, it would have been ridiculous. I believe it's important to define the diference between classifications.

I admit that the year was particularly difficult – some consumers were less inclined to pay more. Nevertheless, we don't have any regrets. We took a position in the market that was higher to our colleagues. Today, we are offering something different: a new cellar, a new image.

L-R: Château Pavie's fermentation room; two of the wines carrying the Pavie name
© Megan Mallen/Wine-Searcher | L-R: Château Pavie's fermentation room; two of the wines carrying the Pavie name

The 2003 Pavie infamously divided critics. Jancis Robinson called it 'a ridiculous wine more reminiscent of a late-harvest zinfandel than a red Bordeaux' and was publicly attacked by Robert Parker, who accused her of taking a 'nasty swipe' at Pavie. How did you feel?

The critics are free to express what they taste. They should have some restraint – they form a caricature of the property and the owner, and it's not very kind and it's unhelpful. Nevertheless, the polemic which you mentioned actually did us good rather than harm, because thanks to the social networks, people tasted it and made up their own minds. We noticed that people talked about it, but not in a negative way.

Have you made the style less ripe since then?

Not at all. In 2003, it was an exceptional vintage because it was very hot 40°C (104°F) every day – they aren't the temperatures we are used to here. And the nights only went down to 25°C (77°F), so it was hot over a long period. We haven't changed the style, but it was a very particular vintage.

Whom do you make wines for?

We make wines for the consumer, but with our taste preference.

What's your most important market at the moment?

We export to 60 countries, but Hong Kong and China are our most important markets.

When and why did you introduce Esprit de Pavie?

In 2008. Why? We had a property in the Côtes de Castillon, [where] even if the wines are very good, they are not very easy to sell. My husband wondered, what can I do with the grapes from the Côtes de Castillon? And with the young vines of Pavie we created Esprit de Pavie.

You own a number of other properties, including Monbousquet and Pavie-Decesse. Do you get frustrated when people just want to visit and talk about Château Pavie?

When people come to Saint-Émilion they want to visit the top property. If we can't see them but offer them a visit at Monbousquet and Pavie-Decesse, they say, 'No thank you, we'll come back in two years.' It's normal: if you go to Paris you prefer to look at the window of Hermès.

Tell me a little about the new cellar

It's not a radical change because we have been using small wooden vats since we arrived. We have more room for working and we are better set up for wine tourism. We also have a lovely reception room that can accommodate up to 200-250 people for concerts and parties. 2013 will be the first vintage.

What do you drink on a week night?

Water. On the other hand, when we are welcoming visitors for work we drink the wines from our property. Tomorrow night, I'm seeing friends and we'll drink wines from Condrieu and Côte-Rôtie. I'm more of a white-wine drinker – Burgundy is excellent and I recently had an excellent white wine from New Zealand. For reds, I like something concentrated, like Côte-Rôtie.

Your daughter lives on the property with your two grandchildren. Will she run the estate when you decide it's time to put your feet up?

Yes, she and her husband work already for the estate. The plan is to eventually hand the property over to my daughter – maybe in 20 years!

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  • Comments

    David Stuart wrote:
    05-Jul-2013 at 14:00:19 (GMT)

    More articles like this please. Excellent.

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