Apirl 4 - Dinner at Pavie with Gerard Perse

by Chuck Hayward

First, some background: Gerard and his wife Chantal purchased Monbousquet in 1993, Pavie Decesse in 1997, and then Pavie in 1998 for $31 million. Gerard was a self-made millionaire who had previously sold two very successful supermarket chains in order to pursue his dream of making wine in St. Emilion. Since their purchase, the Perse family has been considered somewhat of an outsider who has yet to be ‘accepted’ by their neighbors, but has strived to make the best possible wine.

After the tasting of all of his ’05 wines: Pavie, Pavie-Decesse, Bellevue-Mondotte, Monbousquet, Clos l’Eglise, Clos les Lunelles, and Saint-Colombes, we were given a tour by Gerard’s son in law, Henrique Da Costa, a former banker from Paris who now manages the finances of all the vineyard operations. This is when it first became obvious to me that Gerard has spared no expense and has paid attention to all the details. Pavie is an immaculate estate, not in size but in design and upkeep. The old fermentation cellar of 1923 has given way to twenty temperature-controlled wooden vats, which enable them to adapt to the potential of the harvest. The quarries have been replaced by a new ageing cellar, probably the most modern in Bordeaux. Gerard brought in thirty foot high limestone arches from the old Bordeaux train station and placed them in the cellar – truly a sight to be seen. At various places in the cellar, there are small buttons in the ground that one can push down with the foot and a small light will illuminate out of the hand railing to allow you to see the color and clarity of the wine in your glass. There is very faint classical music playing in the background throughout the winery, whether you are in the tasting room or down in the cellar. All the oak barrels are 100% new and are sourced from five coopers, most of them from the Sylvain tonnelliere with every barrel treated with a minimum three year drying period. The vineyard is rigorously pruned; six buds for old vines and two buds for young vines as well as extensive green harvesting in the summer months, leading to yields of 30 hectoliters per hectare (down from 55). In addition, Gerard has installed a new drainage system in the vineyards where there is little slope and significant clay – I cannot imagine the expense!

In addition, let’s not forget why Gerard chose this incredible piece of property: meager soil, excellent south-facing sun exposure, good drainage, and a topography that is naturally frost-resistant as it is shielded from the north winds. Last but not least, Gerard bought a property that has an incredible history, going back to the fourth century, when it, along with Ausone was first in St. Emilion to plant vineyards. It’s also no surprise that Gerard chose to purchase his property in St. Emilion, as it is far and away the most beautiful region in Bordeaux.

Next we took a walk to the top of the hill where we could see the individual vineyard plots of Pavie, Pavie Decesse, and Bellevue Mondotte as well as Monbousquet which is a couple of kilometers down the road and not connected to the rest.

After, we drove down to the family home of the Perse’s – Chateau Monbousquet. What a beautiful property! The immaculate lawn in front of the residence is perfectly manicured and not a weed to be seen. We sat down in the family room and enjoyed good conversation with a ’90 Laurent Perrier Grand Siecle and hors d’oevres.

At this point it already became clear to me that Gerard is a total perfectionist driven to succeed at any cost. He is a former champion cyclist (he met his wife Chantal when she was the one who crowned him the winner of a race with a big bouquet of flowers). His competitive spirit continued with him as he founded not one, but two, supermarket chains. It was difficult not to notice the purist attitude in Gerard as he spoke to us. Every question had to be answered in full, perhaps even repeated in case he missed a small detail. He talks very fast, mostly in French, and tends to dominate a conversation. He has a tanned complexion, blue eyes, and hair that is perfectly coifed with all strands in place. He looks ten years younger than he is, as he is in excellent shape. Every day he bicycles 80 km. He doesn’t miss a beat as he talks on the cell phone while riding. As confirmed by his negociant, deals have been struck while he is riding the back roads of St. Emilion. Even in the winter time, he rides a stationary bike with a computer at his fingertips allowing him to do some work at the same time.

At the dinner table, Gerard can barely sit still, as he is repositioning his silverware so that it sits just in the right place. He gathers up each of the tiny breadcrumbs with his knife and moves them into a straight line. His plates are spotless after each course.

As it turns out, the Perse’s also own the finest hotel and restaurant in St. Emilion, if not in all of Bordeaux, called Hostellerie de Plaisance. Their chef, although he is a former boxer, was crowned chef of the year in 2004. This was the same chef that Pierre Lurton from time to time ‘gets to borrow’ who made us lunch when we were at Cheval Blanc earlier in the day.

The dinner began with the first course of foie gras lasagna. This four inch square lasagna/ravioli had a center of foie gras that was surrounded by wild mushrooms on the inside and topped with shaved truffles. And the sauce was incredible. With this sublime dish we were served the ’01 Monbousquet Blanc. Next was the duck dish served with the ’98 Monbousquet. Lots of black berries here, along with notes spices and oak. Nice velvety texture and plenty of life left in this jammy offering. The sauce for this dish had been reduced for 48 hours! (Not even sure how this is possible?). It was flavored with honey, orange, and Thai spices. Next we were served the ’00 Pavie. Although this wine was young, powerful, and full-bodied, it was also very elegant and soft. Lots of blackberries and cassis with beautiful notes of violet flowers. Gerard says it has another 30 years of life…maybe more. Next came the cheese course followed by a chocolate dessert. At this point, Gerard asks who would like an after dinner drink with a cigar. Rather than bringing out one bottle, he brings out a ’49 and a ’55 Armagnac, a Hennessy Paradis Cognac, a Calvados, and a pear liqueur.

During our conversation, Gerard confirmed that when they purchased the Monbousquet property, they had no other plans to buy other vineyards. At that time, it was very difficult for this family from Paris to ‘fit in’ to the community to begin with. Chantal said that it is really just now that they feel as if they’re accepted in the town. I cannot imagine that while they were feeling very ‘unwelcome’, Gerard decided to purchase Pavie as well and take on a whole other animal. As Chantal said herself, ‘sometimes he gets a little greedy and simply can’t help himself.’

Is there any doubt that the wines of Gerard Perse will not continue to be world class and even set the standard for others to try to achieve? He has elevated the quality of those around him and I believe, to some extent, helped begin a higher level of winemaking for all of St. Emilion that may not be surpassed by other regions, at least in the short run. On this trip I have met with about a hundred of the top Chateau directors/proprietors and Gerard is in a race for perfection…all on his own. I think Bordeaux has a lot to be thankful for that someone like Gerard is pushing the winemaking envelope.