The wines of Tertre Roteboeuf and Roc des Cambes, Bordeaux, France
Meeting François Mitjavile, one of the most interesting wine personalities in Bordeaux

Last week I attended a wine dinner focusing on François Mijtavile’s two Bordeaux properties, Roc des Cambes and Tertre Roteboeuf. He’s an interesting dinner companion, and has lots to say about his approach to wine. And some of these ideas were quite new to me, especially the recurrent Mijtavile theme of ‘degradation’. A bit of this is, apparently a good thing: he likes to harvest his grapes late, to the point that they are beginning to degrade a little.

A little context. Mijtavile’s star property is Tertre Rotebouef, a small 6 hectare St Emilion Grand Cru that has become one of the cult wines of the region. The vineyard is 85% Merlot and 15% Cabernet Franc on clay over limestone soil, facing south.  The property previously belonged to his father-in-law; Mitjavile’s first vintage here was in 1978. In 1987 he purchased a second property in the Côtes de Bourg, called Roc des Cambes. It has 12 hectares of old vines, mostly Merlot again, but with some Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec.

The following quotes are taken from my notes. The combination of a French accent and hasty note taking may have led to one or two errors, but I hope I’ve managed to capture the meaning correctly. I think some of the ideas are really interesting, which is why I wanted to share them as well as my thoughts on the wines.

“How do I feel about wine?” asks Mitjavile. “We have not to mind about structure, power and alcohol. What is important is the aromatic flavours. If you taste bread, and compare good bread versus bad bread, it is the quality of the flavour of the flour that makes the difference. With a good piece of beef, you can get an emotion from its aromatic music. It is the intensity of the marvellous fruit in wine that makes the emotion.”

“The language of the flavours is the most primitive one, and the most difficult to define. But the emotion is there.”

“In my wine I don't pay attention to the intensity of the tannins, but the aromatic music. Which type of fruit do I harvest? I macerate the fruit, I work on the profound flavours in the cellars. They have to be slightly degraded to be charming and aromatic.”

Francois referred to a letter he had from a sommelier in Kong Kong, back in 1998. The sommelier stated that he thought Roc des Cambes 1990 was a great wine, but it was too ripe to age well. Francois maintains that this sommelier confused the maturity of the fruit from the maturity of the wine. In a warm summer like 1990, the fruit is extremely mature, in a style he describes as slightly rôtie. Maturing a wine like this will result in an explosion of flavours. But at some stage in a wine's life the flavours come down and the skeleton appears: only then can you say it is too mature.

“The main mistake is to think that wines with powerful tannins will age better, but the tannic wines can actually lack flavour,” says Mitjavile. 

François is a fan of difficult vintages, because he thinks that they can often make the most exciting wines. “A cycle of rain/sun/rain/sun can give a degradation of the structure, a tenderness that is better than if the season is simply sunny. The greatest terroirs can jump over the difficulties of climate and make the most elegant wines with tender degradation of the fruit. A strong tannin is poor in flavour.”

2011 and 2012 were both Autumn harvests. The received wisdom in Bordeaux, says François, is that Autumn harvests are supposed to make the wines with the most refined flavours, due to freshness at night and sun during the day. “Everyone says this but it is very dogmatic. There are no laws of beauty. Rational people can sometimes be more dangerous than religious fanatics.”

2011 saw drought in the spring, and warm temperatures. “The vine couldn't build something to cross the summer; it was exhausted, went slowly, and was harvested later.” 2011 is therefore an irregular vintage, and some vineyards suffered too much, losing leaves in August. What makes good fruit is a long vegetative cycle. Francois was worried that it would also affect 2012, but there was a rainy spring in 2012 which helped. So 2011 has concentrated fruit, ripening late, with autumnal flavours. The aromatic dynamic is like and early vintage. It doesn't have the opulence.  

2012 was an even later harvest than 2011 by some 10 days, around 15 October. There's more freshness to the fruit in 2012. 

“Terroir is an agronomic performance,” says Mitjavile. “It is a way of behaving, not an agronomic reality.” I think his point here is that the terroir is a vineyards tendency to behave a certain way in each vintage. The vintages will all be different, but the terroir is recognizable in each.  

“We confuse security with quality. Quality is not security: quality comes from working in a more dangerous manner. The greatest wines in Bordeaux have low acidity. Acidity is marvellous for Champagne, which has no structure. When you go south you work with different wines, you need a low acidity, or you get a violent grip on the structure. A great wine has to have low acidity to be voluptuous, and to have an aromatic dynamic to make it alive. There are so many parodoxes in making something beautiful. It has to be slightly degraded, yet fresh. Low acidity, yet aromatic aliveness.” This is a very interesting idea: that to make a great wine you have to flirt with danger, in this case high pH. François is not dogmatic about pH, but his pH levels range from 3.75 to 3.9. He points out that Cheval Blanc 1947, a very famous wine, had a pH of 3.9, but he adds that this is effectively a Pomerol terroir, and you can work with slightly higher pH in Pomerol.

Of 2003: “Robert Parker slammed our 2003, but it has an incredible graceful richness. It is more than 15% alcohol, yet it seems light. Richness in a graceful manner.”  

What about the wines? I wasn’t expecting to like them as much as I did, because I am not a fan of late harvested Bordeaux. But these wines were pretty good, and avoid spoofiness. They are certainly modern and ripe, but they retain freshness and definition.

UK agent for these wines is Corney & Barrow


Tertre Roteboeuf Saint-Emilion Grand Cru 2012 Bordeaux, France
Dense, and with some structure, but dominated by smooth, pure, ripe black fruits. Fresh with good weight. It's a little primary, and there's some red fruit character mixed in with the black. I like the freshness, and I reckon it will develop nicely. 94/100

Tertre Roteboeuf Saint-Emilion Grand Cru 2011 Bordeaux, France
Very ripe, full and fresh with sweet black cherry and blackcurrant fruit, backed up by nice structure. It's quite grippy, but the fruit is pure, sweet and expressive, complemented by notes of cedar, chocolate and spice. 93/100

Tertre Roteboeuf Saint-Emilion Grand Cru 2003 Bordeaux, France
Fine, expressive, elegant nose with lovely poise. Herbs, spices, red berries and blackberry on the palate which has a soft texture yet still has good definition. Sweet, stylish, and quite elegant in this warm style. 94/100

Tertre Roteboeuf Saint-Emilion Grand Cru 1997 Bordeaux, France
Sweet, ripe and autumnal with spices, cherries and herbs, as well as some sweet blackcurrant fruit. Mature notes of earth and herbs in the background. 93/100

Tertre Roteboeuf Saint-Emilion Grand Cru 1995 Bordeaux, France
Ripe, tarry and spicy with some smoothness, too. There's a bit of clunky grip on the palate with some green notes as well as a bit of tar. Nice weight, though. You'd expect this to have been a little better. 92/100

Roc des Cambes 2012 Côtes de Bourg, Bordeaux, France
Lovely freshness here, with bright focused cherry and plum fruit. Supple and quite elegant with delicious, linear, pure fruit the key theme. 93/100

Roc des Cambes 2011 Côtes de Bourg, Bordeaux, France
Quite rich and generous with nice black fruits. Sweet and textured with lush black cherry and plum, plus a bit of grip. Autumnal warmth, too. Generous. 92/100

Roc des Cambes 2005 Côtes de Bourg, Bordeaux, France
Taut and dense but sweetly fruited, with ripe, smooth black fruits. Seductive and ripe, yet showing nice precision. A stylish effort. 93/100

Roc des Cambes 2003 Côtes de Bourg, Bordeaux, France
Very ripe and sweet with spice, chocolate and raisin notes. Supple, smooth, pure palate with mineral and cake notes as well as sweet fruit. 91/100

See also:

Chateau Pontet Canet vertical
Chateau Kirwan

Wines tasted 11/13  
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