THE ODD COUPLE
In their native France, few – if any – wine critics are regarded with such respect as MICHEL BETTANE and THIERRY DESSEAUVE. During a visit in Hong Kong, the duo sat down over a glass or two with
ALTHOUGH THEY PRODUCE precious little of the celebrated liquid compared with their Gallic neighbours, the perfidious Anglos have all but cornered the market in wine criticism. An honourable exception, however, is the long-time partnership of Michel Bettane and Thierry Desseauve, whose annual Le Grand Guide des Vins de France exerts almost biblical authority over France’s millions of wine enthusiasts. The 2011 edition is a doorstep-proportioned 1,000-plus pages, and the tome has proved so popular since it was first published in 2007 that an English-language version is in the works for 2012 (take that, Hugh Johnson, Jancis Robinson et al).
In Hong Kong for Le Grand Day of Indulgence, held in association with the Independent Wine Centre at the Grand Hyatt Hong Kong in September, the pair – who have worked together for almost a quarter of a century – proved to be scholarly yet accessible, their remarkable erudition mollified by warmth, joie de vivre and downright hilarity. In fact, in an industry already replete with larger-than-life personalities, they struck us as the most engaging oenological double act to come our way since “wine ponce” Oz Clarke and “scriffbag” James May climbed aboard an ancient Jaguar to rattle across France for their Oz and James’ Big Wine Adventure TV series.
How did the two of you come together?
TD: It’s a long story, because we’ve worked together for 25 years…
MB: …but it began with a football match, once upon a time when the French players were not so good but not so bad. It was in Beaune, during the Hospices de Beaune [annual wine] auction feast – we were there together but we did not know each other. And there was a Coupe du Monde [World Cup] competition on the TV – far more interesting than the dinners – and we were in the same hotel and decided to watch the games together. And I found the guy very interesting – a good wine-taster and loving football.
And some years later I was the consultant of La Revue du Vin de France, and they needed a new redacteur en chef [editor-in-chief]…and we had a lot of discussions and [Thierry] was interviewed by the owner of the magazine…
TD: In fact, this magazine is something like Decanter in the UK, and it had the reputation to be impossible to manage because of the owner and his wife [laughs]. I told that to the owner – I told him I just want one thing, that if I am the editor-in-chief, I am the editor-in-chief and not the sub-editor behind his wife. He told me, “OK, we’re going to tell that to my wife right now, so…ha, ha, ha…we come to meet his wife and he told her this story and asked her if she agreed and she said, “OK, I agree.” He said, “No, no, not that way, you repeat after me: I,” “I,” “don’t,” “don’t,” “want,” “want,” “to be the editor-in chief…” It was a wonderful story, working with Michel, and it lasted for 15 years. We made a wonderful job together with [the magazine] and we did it thinking we were the owners, but one day the owners became an investment fund and they told us, “We are going to sell [it], it’s a good price and it’s time to sell to the Marie Claire group.” I was at this time 47 and Michel was a little older – but not too much – and the owners of Marie Claire told us, “Don’t change anything, it’s perfect, but we are the family owners and in the strategic decisions, we decide.”
MB: I used to be a teacher in the public service in France. I was able to leave [a job] once, [so] I could do it again. I prefer making the decisions myself.
TD: So we decided to quit and to create our own company in 2005.
MB: We are complementary, we have different…er…he hates classical music and I hate rock music, he likes to bike and I hate sport, ah, perfect! It works very well, we have no ambition to be more famous than the other and now we have a brand with both our names – like Gault and Millau, Smith and Wesson – because in France we like companies with two names.
TD: People who work with us know we are very complementary. I have to say that Michel is an incredible guide to knowing almost everything about wine. When he was a young French teacher, he used to go to vineyards and wine regions during the weekend and the holidays, to taste in the cellars, and at the beginning of the ’70s no one did that. And I am a journalist, I’m fond of developing new business in the media, and it was easy for me to understand that with Michel I can learn a lot about wine and he can learn a lot from me.
Does each of you specialise in a particular category of wine?
MB: We used to have a division, as in after [the 1945] Yalta [conference]…
TD: …I’m not allowed to go to Burgundy…
MB: …for example, we divided the two banks of Bordeaux, I’m on the left bank and he’s on the right. Nobody knows, but we have a…
TD: …gentlemen’s agreement…
MB: …and I’m forbidden to go to Châteauneuf du Pape…
TD: …and in Italy, he goes to Piedmont and I go to Tuscany. But in fact, we have to know everything about wine. Of course, we focus on French wines, because we can go every week, every month…
MB: …and that’s our market. Ninety-five percent of wine drunk in France is French. It’s like that.
TD: For example, next week he goes to Germany…
MB: …because I’m a great follower of German Riesling.
TD: You have to try to know everything,
because it’s unlimited – unlimited discovery, unlimited pleasure, and you meet everywhere and every time fascinating people.
MB: He keeps some soft spots – the right bank of Bordeaux, some Champagne areas – and I have some soft spots on Burgundy, but we cannot [cover the entire spectrum].
TD: The main difference between our job and someone like [Robert] Parker [Jr, of the Wine Advocate] is that to taste a wine, you need to know it from the very beginning. We are always in the wine region during the harvest, because that’s the best place and the best time to understand what is the real quality of the future wine…
MB: …to see the berries, the grapes…not only to ask the growers, “How was the vintage?” but you have to be there to know if they are liars or not, that’s very important, ha ha ha! For me, it’s very important to have knowledge about cultivation, about everything, so I know how they work on the property every day, to see the plots that are very well worked and others that are less well worked.
Do you see yourself as advocates for French wines? What are their attractions and strengths, and what makes them so special?
MB: Diversity and drinkability, especially with food, and the sense of balance…It’s because we [France] are not too much in the north, in the south, in the west or in the east. And, of course, because the great varietals were grown here first. And to have different soils – and, in the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, advances in cultivation and wine-making made French wines the best in the world, so we had at that moment an advance. Now, of course, because the knowledge is shared by everyone, you have the same level of wine-making everywhere…and you have some very great wines made elsewhere in Europe and the world – and we’re very happy about that.
TD: The diversity [in France] is fantastic. You can find white wines, red wines, sweet wines…and every one is very different. There’s so much individuality…
MB: …as in the Gallic character, it’s very important, and I’m very happy to see now
in the New World that there are people
with the same philosophy of wine, who are trying to keep in mind that wine is made to be drunk, and not to be tasted. It’s not the same thing.
You mentioned other wine-producing countries. Which of them offer the greatest competition to French wines?
MB: [In terms of] universality, I don’t there’s any competition. As for individual types of wine, there is competition. You can find very great Cabernet Sauvignons in California, you can find great Sauvignon [Blancs] in New Zealand and, perhaps, great Rieslings in Australia, but for universality I don’t think so, for the moment. Only the Italian vineyard has the possibility and the diversity that can be compared with France.
TD: I think competition is a good thing, in wine as in many things. Thirty or 40 years ago, the chateaux in Bordeaux – even the first growths – were of very poor quality. If you taste a Lafitte ’65, for example, it’s an awful wine – it’s like rosé. OK, ’65 was a bad vintage, but now, even in a bad vintage, Lafitte will use only the best berries and do huge work to produce the best wine. And this is because of competition.
MB: And even within France, in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, you had the red Bordeaux, the white and red Burgundies, and nothing else. Now from southern France you have very elegant and complex wines, and these are competitors too. And you have in Europe a lot of improvements, for instance in Spain in the last 10 years, and, of course, Italy has had great variety and complexity for a long time…and in the New World too. And it’s because
of this competition that now the Bordeaux red wines from the best chateaux are so good.
You know the famous competition in 1976 when the red Bordeaux were absolutely outclassed by the Californian wines; if we’re making the competition nowadays between the best American and the best Bordeaux, it’s less true – and the best Bordeaux can resist and win.
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