paulg’s pierre rovani interview – part one

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Pierre Rovani, rotund, engaging and opinionated as ever, presided over a Seattle tasting of his 2007 Remoissenet Burgundies yesterday, and I had the opportunity to chat with him for awhile before the doors opened. The tasting was sponsored by McCarthy & Schiering Wine Merchants, and held at Seattle Wine Storage. I'll run tasting notes (and Rovani's comments) tomorrow.

For over a decade, Rovani was Robert Parker’s right hand man, responsible for reviewing the wines of Burgundy and the Pacific Northwest (among many others) for the Wine Advocate. He resigned in 2006 to become a partner in Remoissenet, which had just been acquired by new, deep pocket owners. Most of our discussion centered on his new career, and the excellent wines he brought to the table last night. But Rovani also spoke about his ongoing love for Washington cabernet, his past as a wine critic, and offered well-informed opinions about the opportunities and pitfalls of being a Burgundy producer. Today and tomorrow, I’ll run highlights of the interview.

PG: So, you’re now president of Remoissenet, and living in Beaune?

PR: Yeah, I guess that makes me a Beaune-er (he laughs – a deep, stentorian chuckle that fills the room). I’m kind of like the chief bottle washer. My title is president, but in a tiny outfit what does that mean, right?

PG: I remember Remoissenet putting out some really terrific wines in the 70s and early 80s; then they seemed to lose the quality.

PR: Remoissenet had the monopoly of being the purveyor to the old Nicolas Cellars – the source of some of the greatest Burgundy until vintage ’79. This company purchased directly from estates the best wines they had, buried them in their deep limestone cellars, and released them when they felt they were ready. Nicolas stopped doing business in the late ‘80s and sold the name to a company that franchised it. Now it’s just a name.

There was a generational change at Remoissenet, changes in the way people approached Burgundy, and whether growers were selling fruit or bottling themselves. Things got harder. The quality was not the best for a number of years. But the old stuff... (he makes a knowing, expansive gesture) – the stocks we have are shocking. And we have a lot of old stuff – 850 magnums of this, 1200 bottles of this – ’59 Richebourg – we have a wall of it. I have stood in the cellar agape in front of walls of old wines. We’re making those available to collectors, with a back label that explains the story and provenance.

PG: At the time you left the Wine Advocate, there was also a Washington project, involving vineyard land in the Horse Heaven Hills I believe. Whatever happened to that?

PR: The world economy went kaput. The decision was to concentrate on getting Remoissenet where we wanted it before giving me a second project. It really bums me out because there’s no doubt in my mind that for cabernet there are vineyard areas in Washington that are the greatest on earth. It’s just a matter of tapping into it. I still want to do a project here. If you want to make great wine in Washington you can.

PG: And also in Burgundy?

PR: In Burgundy it costs $36 million an acre for Montrachet. We purchased one acre in Clos Vougeot – it cost $4 million. I believe we made 108 cases from that one acre. You quickly realize that the mathematics don’t work. You go to Burgundy for the passion, because you will lose money every year.

PG: Let’s see – just on the cost of the land, never mind the costs of farming, vinifying, marketing, etc. – that’s 1296 bottles. So the cost comes out to $3086/bottle. Of course, that’s just for this first vintage.

PR: So it’s on sale tonight at $161.50/bottle.

PG: How much vineyard have you been able to acquire?

PR: The winery purchase included 2.4 hectares of vines (about 5+ acres). Through acquisitions and contracts we were up to 13.5 hectares; then I got rid of some. We’re now at 11.7 hectares, with 5 premier crus in Beaune (only two come into the U.S.); we have Nuits Ste. Georges, Vosne-Romanée, Gevry-Chambertin, 5 first growths there, and two grand crus – Charmes Chambertin and Clos Vougeot. We were very lucky, and quickly able to secure vineyards to buy and long term, renewable farming contracts. We do all the work, and they are estate wines.

PG: It sounds as if your partners are focused on quality rather than profits.

PR: The rule is every decision we make has to be for quality. We have wealthy shareholders. They have never asked us to make more. The only thing that matters is quality. So we are really busting our humps to be the best. We were second to last to harvest in ’07 and ’09; in ’08 I don’t know of anyone later than us. Our yields are ¼ to ½ ton an acre. You have to bust your hump to have the least fruit you can to give your vine the opportunity to ripen within 105 to 110 days. If you go longer than that you’re a dead man.

PG: Is it a struggle to work within the legal restrictions of the French wine laws?

PR: It’s a crazy business. I will trust nobody. We are at the vineyard when it’s being harvested. We accompany them to the press. We take our press and go away. Why do we not take the fruit? White wine growers do not pay attention to yield like red wine growers. By law the liters are specified – not tons. So the grower does not want me to get the fruit, because if he produced more than the legal limit, it’s not going to get reported, and he loses control. When I do buy fruit I pay for the legal maximum and ask them to ripen half of that. Everybody has second cellars.

Tomorrow – Rovani on wine critics, bloggers, premature oxidation, and a tour through the 2007 Remoissenets.


Ron Washam, HMW said...

Oh, please, God, No, not premature oxidation! It's the return of eBob here on PaulG! Run for your lives!

Anonymous said...

This is going to be enjoyable...........

I do recall when Pierre Rovani pistol whipped a lot of Washington wines in one of his reviews while still with Robert Parker. A winemaker that I know thought Pierre was way out of line with his review. I personally thought he was right-on with his review.

I thing it help wake up the Washington wine industry as the wines have so improved in past years.


Anonymous said...

Paul, what was the nature of Rovani's aborted vineyard venture in HHH? Where was the site? Did he have a partner, or was he going to do it alone? Thanks.

PaulG said...

I believe they were looking at a site near Champoux. I think with the same partners who purchased Remoissenet. He indicated that he'd like to revive the project some day... but that would probably require a significant improvement in the global economy.

Plymale said...

"Pierre Rovani, ever..." Nice! ;)

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