In the small French town of Saint-André-de-Roquelongue when Gérard Bertrand was 10, his father said to him, “You know, Gérard, you’re lucky because when you turn 50, you’ll have had 40 years of harvest behind you.” These words took on an even greater significance when he lost his father 12 years later and found himself at the crossroads between a rugby career and a burgeoning eponymous winemaking empire – that now encompasses flagship estates across the unique terroirs of Languedoc, which is part of the larger Occitanie region.
“My vision was to play rugby; I had a passion for that,” says Bertrand. “I also had the idea to be a winemaker and wine grower.” For nearly a decade Bertrand accomplished both. Sharing sweaty locker rooms with the top players of France, finishing his agricultural studies in Carcassonne and being CEO of his own business.
“After my father (Georges Bertrand) died, I took the decision in the family to continue to take care of the family estate, we had only one at the time, called Cave de Villemajou, we had three people. Then we started the journey from three people to 320, from one estate to 15, and from three countries to 163 countries who carry our wines.”
Bertrand still lives within five minutes from his childhood village, attributing his affection and connection to that place, the nature that surrounds it, and the imprinted memories of his father who taught him about rugby and about wine.“
This is where I am from and it’s where I like to come back,” he says. “My mission is to promote south of France. This is really my soul.”
The Languedoc is in many ways, France’s best kept secret. Sitting close to its more famous neighbor, Provence, it covers a sizable area, holds a rich history and is home to a growing number of innovative winemakers, yet it’s still relatively unknown. The wines from the region are broad spectrum, white to rosé to red, dry to sweet to fortified, still to sparkling. Languedoc reds are often blends made from grapes from the area, including Syrah, Mourvèdre, Grenache and Carignan.
“I was possessed by the tortuous progression of the Carignan and Grenache,” says Bertrand. “These particular varieties somehow taste different from the very first moment and are deeply affected by their terroir.”
The Languedoc is a sun-soaked region, warm and arid. On the ground, native to the landscape is a scratchy patchwork of low-growing wild herbs and soft-leaved bushes known as garigue. The wines themselves are often reminiscent of the resinous and fragrant thyme, lavender and rosemary mixed with a smattering of broom that co-exist in and around the vines.
And among the garigue are streams, rivers abbeys, ancient springs and châteaux, including Bertrand’s Chateau Aigues-Vives (meaning water of life). Situated next to Domaine de Villemajou, he says it has its own identity with flinty soils that transmit bursts of minerality to the wine.
“Here we are in the heart of Corbières, on the best terroir of the Boutenac region,” says Bertrand. “The soul of Aigues-Vives is both peaceful and harmonious.”
Bertrand, who stands at least six feet seven inches tall and possesses a strong presence whenever he enters a room, is refreshingly soft-spoken, almost spiritual, often referring to nature, life’s elements and his profound belief in positive thinking and spiritual power.
“Water and wine each possess a different vibrancy frequency and it is possible to talk of the wave that flows within the wine,” says Bertrand referring the the ancient springs of Languedoc. “Water is essential to life and yet can be relegated to the status of a simple bodily need.”
Water is also a force of nature and in speaking of his personal success he says, “I swam against the wave for 25 years. Nothing happens overnight.”
During the 1970s his father, Georges Bertrand, was already fighting for quality in the region. But along the way the region’s ability to showcase its beauty to the world was met with the weight of tradition and history.
“But, with the changes in lifestyle, the growing desire of consumers for higher quality wines, the work of sommeliers, the progress of viticulture and winemaking .. all of these factors finally unleashed the Languedoc revolution to the world of our great terroirs.”
Inspired by his father, Bertrand set out to never compromise the quality of his wines. He also learned how to develop good relations with banks. Growth was quick with the acquisition of multiple estates.
But it is the Languedoc that fuels his passion. Bertrand ensures that the region has “surfed this wave” of renewal more than ever, with young winemakers who settle in the area, higher quality cooperatives, and more wine producers adopting the biodynamic viticulture.
“Producing organic and biodynamic wines means listening to the earth and giving it what it needs. It’s a profession of faith and civic engagement in order to preserve biodiversity, to produce wines with more freshness, and to reinforce their terroir.”
When he bought Domaine de Cigalus, he retained all the old red vines, of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Caladoc and others and extended his offering by adding white varieties, such as Chardonnay, Sauvignon and Viognier to make a unique blend.
“Biodynamics creates whites that are refreshing and balanced; reds that develop complexity and elegance. Wildlife of all kinds have made this place their home, as well as at least several different varieties of herbs, happily co-existing with the vines. We have learned to commune with earth at Cigalus and it nourishes in return.”
As an ambassador of the Mediterranean art de vivre (lifestyle), Bertrand enjoys sharing the cultural and gastronomic riches of the South of France by way of the numerous wine tourism activities, including an annual jazz festival, at his Chateau l’Hospitalet property, which draws thousands of people every year.
“I start to ride on the waves and what happens? I feel happy. People now recognize the region which is very important for me. More especially, we share the wine-focused art de vivre of southern France, thanks to our historical and architectural riches, our climate and the diversity of the region.”