The Six Degrees of Bernard Portet

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A few months ago, I had the honor and pleasure of meeting acclaimed winemaker, Bernard Portet, of Clos du Val fame, at a small luncheon at Lucques in Los Angeles, where he showcased his “post-retirement” wines under the Heritance label. More about that later.

Mr. Portet was born in Cognac, France, and grew up in Bordeaux, where his family was involved in winemaking for at least eight generations, dating back to the late 17th century. As a youth, he spent quality time with his father in the vineyards and learned the French concept of terroir, a sense of place, that makes a wine the expression of its natural origins…the soil, the sun, the rain, the winds, the topography.

After studying Viticulture, Enology and Agronomy in the south of France, Bernard decided that he wanted to experience winemaking firsthand outside of France.

Bernard was hired by John Goelet, who descends from another Bordeaux winemaking family. Bernard’s mission was to find the right place outside of France to make their wines. Since he was raised in Bordeaux, where elegant, balanced wines are the norm, the big, powerful, single varietal wines emerging in the Napa region were quite different for him and caused him to think about what his role could be in the New World. Despite this obstacle, he eventually settled on the relatively cool Stags Leap District of the Napa Valley, where he and John started the now renowned Clos du Val winery, with its first vintage of Cabernet Sauvignon released in 1972, bucking the California trend by making Clos du Val wines in the classic Bordelaise style.

Over the next twenty years, the American palate continued its evolution to fuller bodied, higher alcohol wines that were being touted by the critics. But Bernard and John stuck to their Gallic roots and continued to make their wines in the French tradition, thus enabling their wines to pair beautifully with food, age with complexity and provide the American wine consumer with an alternative.

Fast forward to a few years ago, when Bernard retired for a moment. The vines were calling him back, leading him to create Heritance, that combines “heritage”, from his family’s legacy of a centuries long winemaking tradition, with “inheritance”, from his father, André, who taught him much of what he knows today.

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Heritance uses assemblage winemaking, that blends or “assembles” many wines together to produce a finished product that “is greater than the sum of its parts”…balanced, elegant, pairs well with food and expresses Bernard’s commitment to the French style of winemaking. Heritance, in Bernard’s own words, is a “winery without walls”, as he has used his strong, longtime relationships with fellow winemaker friends to utilize facilities for his production.

During the luncheon, I tasted his 2011 Sauvignon Blanc, 2010 and 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon, a 2010 Malbec from his “Nandú” project in Mendoza, Argentina, and, my absolute favorite, his 2011 Stanly Ranch Carneros Pinot Noir, a gorgeous light Ruby wine that was far more French than Californian to me. I have not tasted another Carneros Pinot Noir quite like it. All of the Heritance wines are reasonably priced from $21 for the Malbec to $45 for the Pinot Noir. His Sauvignon Blanc sells for $24 and his Cabernet Sauvigon for $36.

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Now for the Six Degrees…

At the luncheon, I was telling Bernard of my upcoming trip to the Languedoc region with the French Wine Society. He told me of his Clos du Val business partner John Goelet’s Domaine de Nizas, in the Languedoc commune of Pézenas and was hoping I would have the opportunity to visit. As good luck would have it, I found out a few weeks later that, in fact, I would be visiting Pézenas and Domaine de Nizas!

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Our group was going to the Pézenas AOC because of its high quality wines and to Domaine de Nizas specifically for its vineyard in basalt soil. The experience of walking these beautiful vineyards, seeing this unique terroir, and tasting the wines that are an expression of it, were one of the best experiences of my stay in the region…not to mention that they also had the biggest and coolest spittoon of all the producers I visited in Languedoc-Roussillon!

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Most of all, seeing the bottles of Clos du Val wines on the shelves in the Domaine de Nizas tasting room, brought my luncheon with Bernard Portet full circle, back to his roots in France, in the region where he went to school to study vines and wines many years ago.

until next time…á votre santé!

 

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